Online Coupons may give Scammers a Foot in the Door

. September 28, 2012

The Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) is warning consumers who receive electronic offers for home improvement to check out the contractors before agreeing to any work.

DCP warns that sometimes scammers will try to lure unsuspecting homeowners into buying services they do not need.  For example, a consumer who redeems an online coupon for a low-cost chimney inspection or sweeping could be pressured, sometimes with scare tactics, into hiring the contractors to fix other problems they “find” requiring immediate attention. These scammers get the consumer to pay up front and then do inferior or unnecessary work, and sometimes no work at all.

http://www.ct.gov/dcp/cwp/view.asp?A=4187&Q=509124

Stanford Study: Eating Organic May Not Be More Nutritious

The New York Times recently reported on Stanford University scientists’ findings published in the September 4 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine that organic produce may not be more nutritious than nonorganic produce. The scientists analyzed previous research and used statistical analysis to determine if there are health benefits from eating organic fruits, vegetables, and meats. According to the article, the scientists’ goal was to help consumers make informed choices by providing an objective review of current organic food science.

The study concluded that there is not strong evidence in published literature that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than other foods but eating organic foods can reduce exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It did find that nonorganic produce has more pesticide residue than organic produce (organics may still have some pesticide residue from processing, transport, or nearby produce fields that use pesticide), but almost always within allowed safety limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Some of the study’s other findings mentioned in the Times’ article include (1) increased omega-3 fatty acids in organic milk and (2) higher levels of phosphorus and phenols in organic produce, but (3) no obvious health advantages to organic meats and (4) no difference in exposure to dangerous bacteria such as E. coli.  
Organic advocates criticized the study in the Times’ article for not valuing some of the differences between organic and nonorganic foods such as reduced (1) pesticide use and (2) antibiotic-resistant bacteria contamination in meats. They also argued that by combining all organic foods into one study, it may have reduced the benefits of specific foods.

Links:


Stanford School of Medicine News Article (already hyperlinked above): http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html

Annals of Internal Medicine Sept. 4 Issue Page (already hyperlinked above): http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1355685

2011 POVERTY FIGURES RELEASED

. September 26, 2012

The U.S. Census Bureau has just released income, poverty, and health insurance coverage estimates for 2011. With respect to poverty, the overall news is better than it has been: for the first time in four years, neither the official poverty rate  (15%) nor the number of people living in poverty were statistically different from one year to the next (2010-2011).  

For children, the poverty rate was 21.9%, while only 8.7% of people aged 65 and older faced poverty. For non-Hispanic whites, the rate was 9.8%, which was lower than the rates for any other racial groups. The racial group with the highest poverty rate was African-Americans (27.6%); that group’s poverty rate was not statistically different from the 2010 estimate. Among Hispanics, the poverty rate actually declined—from 26.5% in 2010 to 25.3% in 2011, while the actual number of Hispanics living in poverty was not statistically different from one year to the next.

Gender differences were present, and worsened with age. In 2011, 13.6 of males and 16.3 % of females lived in poverty. For men, this represented a decrease of almost 3% over 2010, while the female rate did not show a significant change during that period. When age was examined, the gender differences were more pronounced—women aged 65 and older had a 10.7% poverty rate, while the rate for men in this age cohort was 6.2%. As a whole, none of the three age groups (children, adults, and seniors) experienced a statistically significant change in either the number living in poverty or the poverty rate.   

Millions of U.S. Children Face Food Insecurity

A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report found that 10% of U.S. households with children were “food insecure” at times during 2011. In other words, children in these households did not always receive adequate, nutritious food. The number of food insecure households (3.9 million) is virtually unchanged since last year. According to the Washington Post, this translates to 16.6 million U.S. children.

Approximately 1% of U.S. households with children experienced very low food security in 2011 (i.e. food insecurity in seven months of the year, for at least a few days each month). The number of households that experienced very low food security in 2011 is essentially the same as 2010.

The report also found that 57% of food insecure households had participated in one or more of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the National School Lunch Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Click here for the full USDA report.

Hot Report: Assault Weapons Legislation

OLR Report 2012-R-0362 summarizes state legislation since 1993 pertaining to assault weapons.

In 1993, the legislature prohibited possessing, selling, or transporting assault weapons, with limited exceptions. The 1993 act (PA 93-306) also gave those who lawfully possessed an assault weapon before October 1, 1993, nine months to apply for a certificate of possession to continue to possess the weapon. The act made a number of other changes regarding assault weapons.

Since 1993, only five acts have addressed assault weapons.

  1. A 1994 act extended the deadline for those who lawfully possessed an assault weapon before October 1, 1993 to apply for a certificate of possession.

  1. A 1998 act established a mechanism for the Department of Public Safety (now the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection) to exchange information with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services about people committed to psychiatric hospitals who also have permits to sell or carry handguns, handgun eligibility certificates, or certificates to possess assault weapons.

  1. A 2001 act expanded the definition of assault weapons.

  1. A 2002 act exempted possession of certain types of assault weapons from the ban.

  1. A 2007 act required the lawful owner of an assault weapon to report its loss to police in the same way the law already required him or her to report its theft. The act also added penalties for failing to report a weapon's loss or theft.
 For more information, including the major provisions of each of the five acts, read the full report.

Great Recession Hasn’t Cut Connecticut’s Education Spending

. September 25, 2012

Connecticut has avoided the major cuts in state education spending that have occurred in other states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). A new CBPP report paints a bleak picture of steep drops in state inflation-adjusted, per-student education spending since the start of the Great Recession. Among the reductions:

  • -21.8% in Arizona
  • -17.3% in California
  • -13.7% in Wisconsin,
  • -8.8% in both Maine and Michigan
  • -1.3% in Vermont  
CBPP also reports that 26 states are giving schools less funding for FY 13 than for FY 12 while current education funding remains below FY 08 levels in 35 states.

Only 13 states have increased inflation-adjusted per-student spending since 2008, while 19 did so from FY 12 to FY 13. Connecticut is in both groups. Between FY 08 and FY 13, Connecticut’s state education spending rose by 6.1%, or $210 dollars, per student, with most of the increase occurring since last year.  From FY 12 to FY 13, Connecticut boosted education spending by 5.5% or $192 per student, according to CBPP.

SEC Report Finds Americans’ Financial Literacy Lacking

A recent report by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) found that U.S. investors “have a weak grasp of elementary financial concepts and lack critical knowledge of ways to avoid investment fraud.”

Businessweek noted that the investors in the report wanted more financial institution disclosures, but did not want the lengthier disclosure statements such information usually necessitates.

The report, which was mandated by the 2010 Dodd-Frank legislation, also found that women, African-Americans, Hispanics, the elderly, and undereducated groups demonstrated below average financial literacy rates.

The report recognizes the need to improve investor financial literacy and states that the SEC will collaborate with members of the Financial Literacy and Education Commission to develop financial literacy programs that address this problem.

More than Half of Violent Crimes Go Unreported Nationally

. September 24, 2012

According to a report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), more than half of violent crimes nationally went unreported between 2006 and 2010.  This amounts to nearly 3.4 million crimes per year.  Looking at a longer period, from 1994 to 2010, the report found that the percentage of unreported violent and property crimes fell.

The BJS report looks at reasons for not reporting different types of crime and the characteristics of the offenders and the victims.  For example, during the 2006 to 2010 period, the report found that the most common reason for not reporting a crime involving a weapon and injury was fear of retaliation or getting the offender into trouble.  The report reached this same conclusion regarding incidents of intimate partner violence that were not reported. 

The report relies on data from the BJS National Crime Victimization Survey, which collects data on crime victims to complement the official reporting of crime data by law enforcement as part of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. 

Read the full report at:

More Grandparents Are Providing Financial Support to Grandchildren

According to a recent MetLife Mature Market Institute report, 62% of grandparents have provided financial support or monetary gifts to their grandchildren in the last five years.

On average, grandparents spent $23,068 for investments, $8,276 for education, and $6,742 for a down payment on a grandchild’s home. When asked why they are providing financial support, 43% of grandparents surveyed stated it was due to the country’s economic downturn. One-third of grandparents stated that they are giving financial support to their grandchildren even though they think it is hurting their own financial security.

Researchers to Study Possible Link between Zoning Code Reforms and Physical Activity

. September 21, 2012

Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Institute for Health Policy and Research recently received a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to evaluate how zoning code reforms impact adult physical activity levels.

The study’s goal is to determine whether changes in community-level land use, such as adding sidewalks, trails, and bike paths, results in increased physical activity levels among residents. Researchers will evaluate municipal and county zoning codes representing more than half of the U.S. population, comparing adult physical activity levels in communities with and without zoning code reforms. (Researchers have identified communities in at least 35 states that made such reforms.)

Study results will be shared with (1) municipalities and counties across the country and (2) public health, urban planning, transportation, and active living organizations.

Hot Report: Microgrids

OLR Report 2012-R-0417 describes what steps Connecticut, New York, and California have taken to develop microgrids. A microgrid is a small-scale electric distribution network that (1) links several users to one or more nearby distributed (on-site) energy resources and (2) can be operated in conjunction with or independently from the larger electrical grid. When operating independently, a microgrid can continue to supply power to its users even if the larger grid suffers a power outage.
Recent state efforts include:
  1. Connecticut’s new pilot program that provides grants and loans to help develop microgrid infrastructure, which expects to issue an initial request for proposals (RFP) in October 2012 and begin awarding grants in February 2013;
  1. New York’s State Energy Research and Development Authority’s 2010 report on microgrids, which includes recommendations for addressing legal and regulatory issues, financing, and research and development; and
  1. the California state energy commission's Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program, which has helped fund research and development for new microgrid control technology and provides demonstration grants for microgrid projects.
For more information, read the full report.

State’s Occupational Disease Rate Drops

According to a recent UConn Health Center report, the state’s rate of occupational diseases decreased by 10% from 2009 to 2010, although the rate (23.1 cases per 10,000 workers) was still 9.5% higher than the national average.  Occupational diseases include musculoskeletal disorders (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrome), respiratory diseases (from exposure to chemical fumes), skin conditions, lead poisoning, and hearing loss, but do not include traumatic occupational injuries. 

According to the report, workers in the education and health sector reported the highest rate of diseases at 42.2 illnesses per 10,000 workers.  Manufacturing was second with 41.7 illnesses per 10,000 workers, followed by local government with 38.4 illnesses per 10,000 workers. 

U.S. DOT Audit Finds Problems with FAA Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Program

. September 20, 2012

A recent CNN.com article reported on U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) concerns with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Program. The program’s goal is to reduce the risk of wildlife strikes to aviation. The FAA requires airports to create and implement plans to assess and minimize strike risk.

But, according to an August 2012 audit report by DOT’s Office of Inspector General, FAA oversight and enforcement activity is insufficient to ensure that airports (1) follow the program’s requirements or (2) effectively implement wildlife hazard plans. Among other things, the report cited that (1) the FAA has not developed robust inspection practices, (2) FAA inspectors lack necessary expertise in wildlife hazards, and (3) the inspectors failed to maintain adequate inspection records. The report also notes that, because FAA policies and guidance for monitoring, reporting, and mitigating wildlife hazards are mainly voluntary, their effectiveness is limited. The report provided ten recommendations for improving program management and oversight.  

According to the report, the number of reported wildlife strikes has increased five-fold between 1990 and 2011: from 1,770 to 9,840. The report partly attributes the rise to an increase in large bird populations such as Canada geese, certain pelicans and cranes, wild turkeys, and bald eagles.

A New Model For Veterans’ Housing

According to a recent Communities and Banking article, Connecticut is pioneering a new model of affordable residential care to help low-and moderate-income veterans maintain independence as long as possible-while easing the burden on the veterans’ health care system.

A Hartford-based community-action agency, Community Renewal Team Inc. (CRT), is teaming up with the Veterans’ Administration to create Veterans Landing, a new assisted-living facility expected to house over 100 older veterans and their spouses. Veterans Landing is modeled on The Retreat, an affordable CRT assisted-living facility that is part of a state-initiated pilot program that provides assisted living services to low-income, Medicaid-eligible seniors and individuals with disabilities.

CT Gets $107 Million Health Insurance Exchange Grant

. September 19, 2012

The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced that Connecticut and seven other states (California, Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, Nevada, New York, and Vermont) have received “Level Two” planning grants to assist in the planning, development, and design of their health insurance exchanges. Connecticut’s grant totals $107,358,676. 

According to HHS commissioner Kathleen Sebelius, the exchanges are intended to provide consumers and small businesses access to high-quality, affordable health insurance via an online marketplace where customers can choose a private plan that fits their needs.

The state will use the money to hire consultants and new staff to work on the exchange’s creation and on-going operations.  It reportedly will use a substantial portion to develop an IT system to carry out various necessary functions, including eligibility determinations, enrollment,  and information sharing among employers, insurers, and governmental agencies.

The state has already received three HHS health insurance exchange grants, totaling approximately $10 million.

Hot Report: OLR Backgrounder: Evolution Of Model Policy For Police Responses To Family Violence Crimes

OLR Report 2012-R-0375 describes Connecticut’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.

Among other things, the report provides information on a model policy and implementation plan recommended by a 2011 legislative task force. This model policy, which covers (1) dual arrests, (2) training and data collection, and (3) protective orders and bail bonds was incorporated into 2012 legislation that becomes law on October 1, 2012.

For more information, read the full report.

Tracking Gangs on Social Media

According to a recent Atlantic Cities article, gang-related graffiti has expanded beyond street corners and has gone both viral and virtual. Former NYPD gang specialist, Sgt. Lou Savelli, states “Facebook is the new street corner.  Rather than yelling at each other on the streets and on the walls, now they do it on the internet and everyone can see.”

Specifically, gang members videotape themselves threatening rival gangs, dealing verbal taunts, and flashing guns and then post these videos on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media sites.

This type of behavior can lead to a rapid, real-time provocation of violence between gangs.  Because gangs now use social media, the police are also using this technology as another tool to help them track gang activity.

Census Bureau Report on Health Insurance Coverage

. September 18, 2012

On September 12, 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report entitled “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011.”  According to the report, the percentage of people without health insurance in 2011 decreased to 15.7% from 16.3% in 2010. The number of uninsured people decreased to 48.6 million, down from 50.0 million in 2010. The percentage of people covered by private health insurance in 2011 was not statistically differ­ent from 2010, at 63.9 percent. This is the first time in the last 10 years that the rate of pri­vate insurance coverage has not decreased. 

Similarly, the percentage and number of people covered by employment-based health insurance in 2011 was not statistically different from 2010, at 55.1% and 170.1 million. The Northeast region had the lowest uninsured rate in 2011, at 11.0%.

In 2011, 9.4% of children under age 18 (7.0 million) were without health insurance, not sta­tistically different from the 2010 estimate. The uninsured rate for children in poverty, 13.8%, was higher than the uninsured rate for all children, 9.4%.

Practice Book Changes Affecting Attorney Hiring and Conflict of Interest Rules

Effective January 2013, amendments to the Connecticut Practice Book will change the process for addressing conflict of interest issues that arise when an attorney changes employment, going from a firm that represented one party in a case to another firm representing an opposing party.

As explained in a Connecticut Law Tribune article, the new rules will establish a procedure that allows the attorney to promise to stay away from the case, without the entire firm being disqualified.

According to the article, when this situation arises now, the attorney’s former firm often asks the court to have the new firm removed from the case due to the potential conflict of interest.  Although judges grant such requests rarely, the possibility of a conflict could impact hiring decisions. 

The article has more details on the amendments, how they relate to existing practice, and different opinions on the new procedure.

“None of the Above” Stays on Nevada Ballot

. September 17, 2012

Since 1975, Nevada voters who didn’t like any of the candidates in statewide federal and state races have been able to make their displeasure known by voting for “None of These Candidates.” That right appeared in jeopardy in August after a U.S. district court judge enjoined the law as unconstitutional because votes for no candidate don’t count in the final tallies that determine the winners. (The winner of the race must be a person, even if “none of the above” garners the most votes.)

But now “none of the above” is back on ballot after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the secretary of state’s request for an emergency stay of the district court ruling. While the appellate court’s order did not explain the reasons for the stay, a concurring opinion stated that the likelihood of success on the merits overwhelmingly favors the state. It also said that failing to stay the injunction would cause irreparable injury to the state and its citizens.

Because the deadline for printing the ballots has already passed, the stay means that “none of the above” will remain on the ballot in the 2012 election while the appeals process continues.

Designing Public Housing to Discourage Crime

Can the physical layout of a place like a subway platform or a public housing project encourage and sustain muggings and break-ins? That’s the argument Malcolm Gladwell makes in his best seller, The Tipping Point, a book about what triggers social epidemics, including crime. According to Gladwell, a criminal “is actually someone acutely sensitive to his environment, who is alert to all kinds of cues, and who is prompted to commit crimes based on his perception of the world around him.”

It seems that the idea that design could encourage or discourage crime was lost on the folks who designed the mega public housing projects that were built in the 1960s and 1970s. “They were built in shoddy barracks and imposing towers, neither of which gave residents any control over the safety of their communal outdoor spaces. They were, in a sense, dangerous by design (although no one thought of it that way at time),” Emily Badger wrote in the Atlantic Cities.

The hard lessons of the 60s and 70s were reflected in new federal policies, such as Hope VI, which provided money for demolishing the worst public housing projects and replacing them with “mixed-income communities on shorter blocks with less institutional town homes and designing streets, lawns, and porches that people would want to cherish and protect,” Badger wrote.

Is this approach working? Urban Institute researchers found evidence that it does, and not just in the project, but the surrounding neighborhood. The researchers “raise intriguing questions about exactly how a community changes when its build environment does.” According to Gladwell, “environmental tipping points are things that we can change: we can fix broken windows and clean up graffiti and change the signals that invite crime in the first place.”

USDA Offers Drought Assistance

. September 13, 2012

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will provide assistance to farmers affected by the current drought.  Some highlights of its actions include:

·         USDA’s intention to purchase up to $100 million of pork products, up to $10 million of catfish products, up to $50 million in chicken products, and up to $10 million of lamb products for federal food nutrition assistance programs;
·         Authorization to open nearly all of the Conservation Reserve Program grassland acres for emergency haying;
·         Reduction of USDA’s Emergency Loan Rate from the previous rate of 3.75% to 2.25%; and
·         USDA’s designation of 1,628 counties across 33 states as disaster areas—1,496 due to drought—making all qualified farm operators in the areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans.

USDA noted that information on the current drought is updated frequently on the agency’s dedicated drought webpage

Other Winners & Losers in the Apple v. Samsung Case

While the recent billion dollar verdict against Samsung for violating Apple’s iPhone patents should clearly benefit Apple in its quest for smart phone supremacy, Slate.com’s Matthew Yglesias argues that it could also hurt the telecommunications companies that sell mobile phone plans and, ironically, help Apple’s longtime rival, Microsoft. 

According to Yglesias, the iPhone’s popularity gave Apple enormous leverage in negotiations with the telecom companies, but the rise of Samsung (and other companies’) phones using the Android operating system created a viable alternative to help counterbalance it.  In light of the verdict, the scales may once again tip heavily in Apple’s favor.

At the same time, if the market turns away from Samsung and the Android system, the decision could help Microsoft and its Windows Phone operating system emerge from the shadows to become a major iPhone alternative.

Hot Report: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

. September 12, 2012

OLR Report 2012-R-0391 provides information on state financial assistance programs for grandparents raising grandchildren.

Grandparents raising grandchildren may qualify for financial assistance through certain state programs. Those who become guardians of grandchildren involved in the child welfare system (e.g., victims of child abuse or neglect) receive the largest benefit through the Department of Children and Families (DCF) Subsidized Guardianship Program. Under this program, grandparents receive monthly stipends equal to that of foster care payments.  Grandparents who become guardians of children not involved in the child welfare system may be eligible for a substantially smaller Temporary Family Assistance (TFA or cash welfare) payment from the Department of Social Services (DSS).  

In addition, the New Haven Regional Children's Probate Court administers an extended family guardianship and assisted care program that provides annual grants of up to $1,000 to eligible guardian relatives to help pay child care costs. The Children's Trust Fund's Kinship and Respite Fund programs also provide one-time grants to help grandparents pay for certain non-recurring child care costs. The grants are administered in several local probate courts and one DSS regional office.

For more information, read the full report.

MIT Videos Make Science Fun

We know, we know, you’ve heard it before. Someone is always claiming to make science fun. So if you make a funny video, it’s a step in the right direction. And if it’s made by students from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), then it provides a lot more science than, say, a YouTube cat video.

The Boston Herald education blog recently posted that MIT students have made more than 30 videos on science fundamentals for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It’s not bad for adults either, whether you want to learn how to engineer a pixel or what makes an airplane fly.

Confidence in Home Ownership after the Housing Crisis

. September 11, 2012

A new paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston looks at whether the “Great Recession” has changed how people feel about homeownership.  The study found that people who in 2008 lived in zip codes that were hardest hit by the crash in housing prices, as compared to those in areas least severely affected, are (1) significantly more likely to be confident about owning a home if they are older (above age 58) but (2) significantly less likely to be confident if they are younger. 

The study’s results also imply that merely having information about an adverse event is not enough to change behavior but a direct experience (an individual or someone he or she knows going through a foreclosure or losing a significant amount of money in the housing crisis) does change an individual’s confidence in homeownership.  The authors suggest the difference in confidence levels based on age may reflect the malleability of younger people’s attitudes and how they internalized the drop in housing prices as a regime change where housing is a risky investment.  The authors state that other studies suggest that such a perceptual change is likely to be persistent.  The authors also suggest that older people may see the drop as temporary.

Feds Offer Guidance Regarding Child Support Contempt Proceedings

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Turner v. Rogers (131 S. Ct. 2507 (2011)) that when states intend to issue civil contempt orders against noncustodial parents who fail to meet their child support obligations, and these orders can result in the obligor’s incarceration, the states must have procedural safeguards in place to determine whether the obligor in fact has the means to meet these obligations. The court did not find that such a person had a right to counsel, which had been asserted.

In June, the agency that oversees the federal Title IV-D (child support enforcement) program issued guidance to state child support agencies to help them establish these safeguards. The guidance emphasizes the importance of screening cases before initiating contempt proceedings to ensure that the proceedings are appropriate. As part of this screening, the guidance urges state child support agencies to consider the obligor’s individual circumstances and ensure that he or she can actually pay the support.

Underwater Mortgages Still an Issue in Connecticut

. September 10, 2012

According to a recent Hartford Courant article, nearly 25% of Connecticut’s single family houses and condominiums with a mortgage are “underwater” (i.e., the value of the home is less than the amount owed on the mortgage).  The article, which uses data reported by zillow.com, cautions that even though that number is lower than the national average of 31%, it’s still significant for a variety of reasons.  Among other things:

  1. the percentage of home mortgages underwater in Connecticut is higher than one year ago,
  2. 51% of underwater properties include additional debt beyond the first mortgage, and
  3. about 11% of underwater mortgages are seriously delinquent or in foreclosure, indicating that more foreclosures are likely.

Don’t Trust Those Rave Reviews

If you love good books, be wary of choosing them based on rave customer reviews on the Internet, cautions the New York Times. According to a University of Illinois expert, about one-third of all consumer book reviews on the Internet are fake, either written by marketers, the authors themselves, or a hired third-party.

“Consumer reviewers are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth,” the article says. “They purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet.”

“Reviewers” make good money pumping up book sales – the article cites one man who earns $28,000 a month cranking out favorable reviews. Another says she spends about 15 minutes reading a book to write a 300-page review. For a 50-page review, she doesn’t read the book at all.

New Jersey Considers Mandatory Seat Belts for Dogs in Cars

. September 7, 2012

New Jersey legislators may soon be fighting like cats and dogs over legislation requiring vehicle seat belts for, well, cats and dogs. 

Assembly Bill (AB) 3221, introduced by Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, would require pet owners to place their pets in seat belts or similar restraining devices while transporting them in vehicles. Violators would face a $20 fine. A violation also would be considered cruel or inhumane treatment, which is punishable by a fine of between $250 and $1,000.

According to NJ.com, passage of the bill would give New Jersey the toughest seat belt law for pets.

But, other legislators have introduced AB 3182, which specifies that failing to restrain a dog, cat, or other pet is not cruel or inhumane. More information on the competing bills can be found at the New Jersey legislature’s website.

Do Arrestee Privacy Rights Trump the Government’s Need for DNA Samples? States Disagree

. September 6, 2012

The Pew Center on the States reports a split among state and federal courts over the constitutionality of collecting DNA samples from
people who have been arrested for, but not convicted of, crimes.  Half of states and the federal government have such policies, and the highest courts in Maryland and Minnesota have struck theirs down. On the other hand, two federal appeals courts in other parts of the country reached the opposite conclusion. 

Those challenging arrestee-collection policies argue that they violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.  Proponents maintain that they have proven to be a valuable law enforcement tool.  For example, in Virginia, such samples matched forensic evidence in 755 open cases.

Maryland’s attorney general has filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the conflict; Chief Justice Roberts issued a brief opinion on August 7th indicating that the Court will likely do so.

Poker Players Dealt a Winning Hand

A federal judge has ruled for the first time that poker is a game of skill, not chance. In a 120 page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein overturned a New Jersey man’s conviction for hosting a high-stakes poker game (Texas Hold‘em) in New York. The decision could strengthen the case to legalize Internet gambling (see OLR Report 2012-R-0036 on Internet gambling).

States to Be Given Opportunity to Waive Welfare-to-Work Rules

The federal agency overseeing state administration of the welfare-to-work program (TANF) has indicated a willingness to entertain state requests to run demonstration programs waiving some of the rules around work requirements for welfare recipients. The current federal rules are quite strict in terms of what types of activities count as work, how states must verify participation in these activities, and the calculation of a state’s work participation rate (states face reductions in their TANF block grant if they fail to meet these requirements).

The agency, in an information memorandum, emphasizes that it will only consider granting waivers to states that can demonstrate that any changes will lead to a more effective system for meeting TANF’s work goals. Thus, any state receiving a waiver would have to (1) fully evaluate the demonstration and (2) meet interim targets for measuring whether any new work strategy is effectively helping a family meet the goals of the TANF program (e.g., end dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage).

The memorandum, which includes a letter the agency sent to state “human service officials” earlier this month, cites Connecticut as a state that has asked about the potential for such waivers.

The Generous Alumnus Head Coach of Football

. September 5, 2012

Endowed professorships in higher education date back to 16th century England, when Lady Margaret Beaufort established endowed chairs in divinity at Oxford and Cambridge. Lady Margaret, grandmother of Henry VIII, probably never imagined the practice spreading to the football fields of America half a millennium later.

But that’s exactly what’s happened. According to a recent New York Times article, seven of the eight Ivy League schools have an endowed head football coaching position, as do Stanford, Boston College, Northwestern, and Vanderbilt, with several other schools seeking to join them. These schools and others also have endowed head coaching positions in other sports, and in some cases, certain assistant coaching positions are also endowed.

The endowed positions are like endowed professorships in that the donation is invested, with annual payouts helping to fund the coach’s salary and easing pressure on the athletic department’s operating budget (or enabling it to offer a higher salary than it otherwise could). The required donation amounts vary depending on the coach and the sport, with the article stating that some schools are seeking a $5 million gift for a head football coach endowment. But unlike professorships, endowed coaching positions do not come with tenure.

Effect of Surgery or Observation for Localized Prostate Cancer

A study from the New England Journal of Medicine of 731 men with localized prostate cancer (cancer that has not spread elsewhere) found that mortality rates were similar among men who had surgery to remove the prostate compared to those who did not receive the surgery. The study, published in the July 19 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, tracked the men for 12 years.  The results showed no significant overall difference between the two groups in all-cause mortality or mortality specifically linked to the cancer; absolute differences were less than 3%.  The analysis suggests that surgery might reduce mortality among certain subgroups—those with higher PSA (prostate-specific antigen) values or higher-risk tumors.   

An abstract of the article is available online.  The full text is available in the Legislative Library.


No Business Expense Deductions for Medical Marijuana Vendors

. September 4, 2012

Although 17 states, including Connecticut, have legalized medical marijuana, businesses that sell marijuana under such laws face significant federal tax issues. 

Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code bars anyone from claiming federal tax deductions or credits for expenses related to a business that consists of “trafficking in controlled substances,” as defined by federal law.  The U.S. Tax Court created an opening for certain deductions when it ruled in 2007 that such a business could deduct expenses for “care-giving” services.  But the opening looks smaller in light of an August 2, 2012 decision disallowing such deductions for California medical marijuana dealer Martin Oliver, doing business as the Vapor Room. The court barred Oliver’s deductions for the 2004 and 2005 tax years based on (1) the close and inseparable relationship between the Vapor Room’s care-giving services and its marijuana sales and (2) lack of documentation for the expenses of the two activities.  The Court also ruled that Section 280E applies regardless of whether a business is legal under state law because the standard for allowable business deductions is whether the trafficking is legal under federal law.

An August 15 Reuters article about the case highlights the dilemma for medical marijuana sellers.  To qualify for federal tax deductions, they must maintain meticulous records. But the same records can be used against them in federal drug prosecutions.

Rest in Peace? State Supreme Court Issues Ruling on Backyard Burial Case

A recent Connecticut Supreme Court decision regarding a landowner’s right to bury her husband in the backyard highlights the intricacies of land use matters.

As the Hartford Courant recently reported, Elise Piquet, an 82 year old widow from Chester, Connecticut, has spent the last 8 years litigating the burial issue.  The case originated in 2004 after Piquet buried her husband’s remains in the backyard of her 8-acre property.  After a friend advised her that the private burial might not be allowed, Piquet asked for a clarification from the Department of Public Health and, subsequently, the town. 

Chester’s zoning enforcement officer issued Piquet a cease and desist order in 2005 for violating the town’s zoning regulations.  Piquet appealed the order, seeking a variance from the town’s zoning board of appeals.  Later in 2005, however, in a letter to Piquet, the zoning officer withdrew the order to allow Piquet time to remedy the violation.  Piquet then withdrew her appeal with board and sought a declaratory judgment asking the court to declare whether she had the right to use her property to bury her husband’s remains, and, upon her death, for her burial as well.

In a 4-3 decision, the Court ruled that Piquet had failed to exhaust her administrative remedies before appealing to the courts.  The Court said that even though the zoning officer withdrew the order, the letter constituted a “decision” that Piquet could have appealed to the town’s zoning board of appeals.

Healthcare Reform Drives Acquisitions in Insurance Industry

The Hartford Courant reports that Aetna, Inc. plans to acquire Coventry Health Care, Inc. for $5.6 billion in cash and stock.  The deal, which needs regulatory approval and is expected to be completed in mid-2013, will give Aetna a larger presence in the Medicaid and Medicare markets.

Analysts say that the federal healthcare reform law – the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – is driving more merger and acquisition activity in the insurance industry.  The law requires insurers to spend a minimum amount of premium dollars collected on medical expenses, thereby limiting how much profit insurers can make.  This limit on profitability causes insurers to seek other ways to grow; namely, through mergers and acquisitions.  The Hartford Courant provides a list of recent activity.