November 24, 2010

Number of Mortgage Loan Delinquencies Down But Still Remains High

According to the Associated Press, data recently released by the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) shows that the number of Americans at risk of foreclosure improved slightly over the summer, but not enough to indicate the housing market crisis is almost over. The number of homeowners who missed at least one mortgage payment in 2010’s third quarter dropped to about 9.1 percent from 9.9 percent in the second quarter and a high of more than 10 percent in the first quarter, after adjusting for seasonal factors. Additionally, the percentage of mortgage holders who were seriously delinquent (i.e., at least 90 days past due) fell from 4.8 percent to 4.3 percent. But it may take several years before these modest improvements translate into housing market security. MBA’s Vice President of Research and Economics stated, "We still have three to four years to work through this overhang of delinquent loans.”

New Federal Initiative to Combat the Impact of Violence on Children

On September 23, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Defending Childhood Initiative, making it a priority for the U.S. Department of Justice to reduce high levels of violence and its impact on children.  The initiative seeks to prevent children’s exposure to violence as victims and witnesses, more fully understand the impact of violence on children and mitigate its effects, and develop best practices.  The initiative will fund demonstration sites, research, and public awareness. Eight demonstration planning grants were awarded to cities (including Boston and Portland, Maine), Indian tribes, and counties. 

November 23, 2010

Colleges and Health Care Reform

As employers, the nation’s universities and colleges are affected by the federal health care reform legislation enacted earlier this year. University administrators are grappling with a host of questions about the health care plans they offer employees. One of the early decisions for employers, including higher education institutions, is whether or how to retain “grandfathered” status for a plan. Such status means that a plan is exempt from some of the new law’s requirements if the employer does not make major changes to the plan, such as reducing benefits. A recent article from Inside Higher Ed discusses this and other issues in greater detail.

DPUC Approves UIL Purchase of CNG And Southern

The state Department of Public Utility Control (DPUC) has approved UIL’s purchase of Connecticut Natural Gas (CNG) and the Southern Connecticut Gas Company (Southern) for $1.156 billion. UIL is the holding company for the United Illuminating electric distribution utility. CNG serves approximately 157,000 customers in the Hartford-New Britain area and Greenwich. Southern serves approximately 176,000 customers from Westport to Old Saybrook, including Bridgeport and New Haven.
Among its many findings in approving the transaction, DPUC determined that:
  1. the transaction would help level UIL’s cash flow throughout the year, as gas usage peaks in the winter and electric usage peaks in the summer;
  2. although UIL has never owned a regulated gas distribution company, many of its directors, managers, and employees have significant experience in the regulated natural gas industry;
  3. UIL expects to rely on CNG’s and Southern’s existing employees, plants and facilities and does not intend to implement workforce reductions; and
  4. the decision would have no immediate effect on rates and no rates would change without further DPUC review. 

November 22, 2010

Searchable Independent Expenditures Database Now Available

The State Election Enforcement Commission’s (SEEC) website now features a searchable database of independent expenditures. Independent expenditures are those that support the election or defeat of a candidate and are made without the consent, coordination, or consultation of a (1) candidate or candidate's agent, (2) candidate committee, (3) PAC, or (4) party committee.

The database covers candidates for statewide office, the General Assembly, and probate judge. Search criteria include the candidate’s name, office sought, and entity making the expenditure. It is part of the SEEC’s eCRIS Search, which also includes databases of committee names, documents filed, disbursements, receipts, and summary totals.

Consumer Websites

State residents have a variety of websites to help them when making tough or tricky consumer decisions: 
  1. The Department of Consumer Protection provides helpful links to consumers
  2. The Better Business Bureau site
  3. The Attorney General’s office’s helpful links on a wide range of consumer choices

November 19, 2010

National Commission on Children and Disasters Reports to President and Congress

The National Commission on Children and Disasters has released its 2010 report assessing children’s needs in relation to the preparation for, response to, and recovery from, all hazards.

The report makes findings and recommendations on: child physical health, mental health, and trauma; child care and child welfare; elementary and secondary education; sheltering, temporary housing, and affordable housing; transportation; juvenile justice; evacuation; and relevant activities in emergency management.

The independent, bipartisan commission is charged with identifying gaps in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery for children and making recommendations to close them.

Federal Rights for Gay and Lesbian Spouses?

A lawsuit filed in Connecticut’s federal district court this month challenges the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of marriages between partners of the same sex. The seven plaintiffs, spouses or widowers living in states where same-sex marriage is legal (Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont), seek access to the same federal benefits to which different-sex married couples are entitled. These include income tax rules and social security, family and medical leave, health insurance, and retiree benefits.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant.

November 18, 2010

When Does Federal Healthcare Reform Take Effect?

The federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became law on March 23, 2010. Some provisions took effect on September 23, 2010 and several more will take effect each year through 2018. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently developed an interactive tool to explain when and how federal health reform provisions will be implemented over the next several years and allows you to sort them by topic area.

Connecticut Agriculture is a $3.5 Billion Industry

According to a September 2010 University of Connecticut report, the agriculture industry contributes $3.5 billion to the state economy and accounts for about 20,000 jobs statewide.

November 17, 2010

Credit Unions Gaining Customers

The New York Times reports that some home buyers are turning to credit unions to obtain mortgages with lower rates and fewer fees. Credit unions are non-profit, cooperative financial institutions owned and run by their members. Membership is limited to groups in a common professional association or occupation or a certain region.

The Times reports that since the 2008 subprime mortgage market crisis credit unions have provided more than $100 billion in first-time loans, including both mortgages and refinancing.

The state Department of Banking regulates credit unions.

Inspector General Critiques OSHA Whistleblower Program

The federal program to protect private sector whistleblowers does a poor job, according to a report from the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970 created the whistleblower protection program. Since then OSHA has been assigned whistleblower duties under more than a dozen other federal laws.

This audit looked at whether complaints filed by whistleblowers were appropriately investigated and whether the complainants received appropriate protection under OSHA. The report found that 80% of applicable investigations under OSHA and two other major laws did not meet one or more of eight elements essential to the investigative process. As a result of not providing complainants with thorough investigations, OSHA could not provide assurance that complainants were protected as the various whistleblower statutes intended.

The audit found that during the period under review, 77% of complaints were dismissed or withdrawn, 21% were resolved through settlements which were generally minimal in nature, and two percent were found to have merit.

November 16, 2010

Texas Lawmakers Propose Pulling Out of Medicaid

The New York Times reports that some Texas lawmakers favor pulling out of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program to reduce the state’s $25 billion budget shortfall. The Heritage Foundation estimates that this could result in a savings of $60 billion between 2013 to 2019.

Others are taking a more cautious approach, willing to consider the opt-out only if it can be shown to make fiscal sense without jeopardizing care. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which runs the programs on behalf of 3.6 million enrollees, will release its own study later in the year.

November 15, 2010

Time Is Running Out…

If Congress does not intervene, a number of tax cuts, deductions, credits, and other provisions will expire in 2011. Over 50 major changes to the federal tax code are scheduled to sunset after December 31, 2010, including provisions affecting the:

• Individual, capital gains, and estate tax rates;

• Child tax credit;

• Dependent care credit;

• Adoption credit;

• Student loan interest deduction; and

• State death tax credit.

Construction Starts on West Haven Station

As reported in the November 10th edition of the Connecticut Post, construction has started on a new Metro-North Railroad commuter train station in West Haven. The $103 million project includes the station, which will have a waiting room, restrooms and a news stand, as well as parking for about 660 vehicles. The station is expected to open by the end of 2012.

November 12, 2010

Teacher and School Administrator Contract Negotiations

The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) reports “big changes” in recently negotiated teacher and school administrator contracts due to the economic situation. CABE’s data covers 68 of 74 teacher and 34 of 39 administrator contracts negotiated in 2009-10. In these contracts, average across-the-board wage increases for 2010-11 are 0.46% for teachers and 0.82% for administrators. If step increases for those not at the top of the pay scale are included, average increases are 0.77% for teachers and 0.75% for administrators.

According to CABE, many new contracts also include such measures as furlough days and shorter school years, no step increases in the first year of new contracts, increased employee contributions for health insurance, and contract extensions to cover costs. Of the 102 contracts included in CABE’s report, 13 went to binding arbitration. Of these, arbitrators decided nine and the remaining four were settled by stipulated awards. Please see OLR Report 2010-R-0244 for information about the number of issues arbitrators awarded to unions and school boards in binding arbitration over the last five years. CABE’s Settlement Update (June 11, 2010) is available only to CABE members.

The Dire State of Public Housing

Public housing projects across the nation are falling apart, the New York Times recently reported. New York City housing authority tenants have to wait at least three years for basic repairs. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that it would cost between $22 billion and $32 billion to rehabilitate the nation’s federally funded housing projects. In fact, HUD want to allow the local quasi-public agencies that own and manage these projects to raise the necessary funds by borrowing public and private capital, using their land and buildings as equity.

November 10, 2010

Link Between PTSD and Dementia

The results of a new study reported in the September issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggest that veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at greater risk for dementia than other veterans, even those who suffered traumatic injuries during combat. The study found that veterans with PTSD had twice the chance of later being diagnosed with dementia than veterans without PTSD. While the authors are not currently able to determine the cause for this increased risk, they stress the importance of determining whether the risk of dementia can be reduced by effectively treating PTSD.

Seniors Participate in Food Assistance Program at Lower Rates than Younger Individuals

A new report by Mathematica Policy Research shows that seniors (age 60 and older) continue to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps) at lower rates than other eligible people. In FY 2009, 67% of all eligible individuals participated in the program, but the number of eligible seniors who ultimately participated was only 35%. The number of seniors participating in SNAP rose between 2002 and 2006. Connecticut’s enrollment rates during this period nearly mirrored the national average.

The study provides state-by-state data on (1) the number of senior SNAP participants, including their characteristics; (2) seniors eligible for benefits in 2009; and (3) senior participation rates between fiscal years 2002 and 2006. It also discusses initiatives states have undertaken to improve the take-up rates for this subgroup of individuals.

November 9, 2010

Post-Employment Benefits Commission Publishes Final Report

The State Post-Employment Benefits Commission has published its final report on the state’s underfunded retiree benefit programs. Although it made few specific recommendations, the commission suggested several options, including increasing employee contributions, raising the retirement age, discouraging early retirements, and stipulating that a portion of any future state surpluses be used to fund retirement benefits.

The commission failed to agree on the value of replacing the state’s defined benefit (pension) plan with a defined contribution (401K) plan. Those in favor of changing to a defined contribution plan worried that the state’s current problems would only get worse, while those opposed to a change believed that 401k plans would cost the state more money, provide less security to retirees, and fail to address current funding problems.

However, the commission did advise against issuing pension obligation bonds because of their impact on the state’s debt level, financial flexibility, and credit rating. It also advised against any future retirement incentive programs that failed to include a multi-year actuarial analysis and a method for funding any actuarial losses. The commission also stressed that any savings realized by its suggestions had to be reinvested to reduce the retirement plans’ unfunded liabilities.

Comments Sought for Revisions to Child Support Guidelines

Federal law requires every state to have child support guidelines and to review them periodically. Connecticut’s Commission for Child Support Guidelines is reviewing ours and considering whether revisions are warranted. It is seeking comments and suggestions from people who have used the guidelines and from those who have paid or received child support.

November 8, 2010

Study: Average Price of College Education Decreasing for Full-Time Students

Despite significant increases in tuition and fees, the average net price of higher education has actually decreased in recent years for full-time students. That’s according to “Trends in College Pricing,” a recent report by the College Board, the national non-profit membership association best known for producing the Scholastic Aptitude Test and other standardized tests. The report found that the tuition and fee increases were offset by increases in grant aid and federal tax benefits, meaning that, when adjusted for inflation, the average net tuition and fee cost in 2010-11 is lower than it was in 2005-06.

The report includes data concerning tuition and fees, room and board, net prices, institutional revenues and expenditures, enrollments, and other categories.

Collection Results from National Take Back Day

This fall the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and state and local law enforcement officials held the first national “Take Back Day,” to collect unneeded and unwanted prescription drugs. At 4,094 collection sites across the country, including 44 in Connecticut, individuals were able to anonymously drop off prescription drugs at no cost and with no questions asked.

The program is meant to prevent prescription drug abuse and ensure proper disposal of unused medication. People often throw unused medication down a sink or toilet, polluting water and harming septic systems and aquatic wildlife. In New England, the officials collected 25,810 pounds of prescription drugs (5,050 pounds in Connecticut).

More information about the New England collection results is available through the DEA. Information about proper disposal of prescription drugs, including local household drug take back programs, is available through the state consumer protection department.

November 5, 2010

New Consumer Product Safety Commission Crib Safety Campaign

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has recently released a crib safety video as part of its new outreach program. The program attempts to inform new parents of the risks associated with infants’ sleep environment.

In order to create a safe sleep environment for infants, the video suggests:

• Placing infants to sleep on their backs

• Using a firm, tight-fitting mattress

• Never using extra padding, blankets, or pillows under baby

• Removing pillows or thick comforters

• Not using positioning devices

• Regularly checking cribs for loose, missing, or broken parts or slats

• Not trying to fix a broken crib

• Placing cribs and playpens away from windows and window covering cords to avoid fall and strangulation hazards

• Placing baby monitor cords away from cribs or playpens to avoid strangulation

For more information, check Connecticut's Department of Consumer Protection.

Credit Card Offers Increasingly Complex

Credit card offers, which became increasingly complicated over the last decade, have improved somewhat since the passage of federal Credit Card Act of 2009, according to an October 2010 report by the nonpartisan Center for Responsible Lending (CRL). Analyzing the frequency of numbers appearing in the “summary of terms” boxes on direct mail offers, CRL reports that from 1999 to 2009, the number count increased by 250%. By May 2010, the number count had decreased by 23% from its 2009 peak. In May 2010, 41% of the numbers appearing in summary of terms boxes related to the card’s annual percentage rate, while 27% related to penalty fees, 24% to miscellaneous fees, and 8% to other provisions.

November 4, 2010

Connecticut’s Voter Turnout Rate is 5% Higher than National Average

According to initial estimates by the United States Elections Project, Connecticut’s turnout by the voting eligible population (VEP) was 46%, about 5% higher than the national average of 41.5%. Oregon had the highest VEP turnout rate at 56.9% and Texas had the lowest at 32.5%. Similarly, Connecticut’s turnout by voting age population (VAP), all residents age 18 or older, was 42.1%, compared with the national average of 38.2%.

VEP turnout rate is the vote for the highest office divided by the VEP. It excludes people who are not eligible to vote such as non-citizens or felons (depending on state law). VEP turnout rate differs from the VAP turnout rate, which is the vote for highest office divided by all residents age 18 or older.

In a midterm election, the highest offices on the ballot are for Governor, U.S. Senator, and House of Representatives.

For more information on turnout rates in 2010 and previous elections, read 2010 General Election Turnout Rates

Cell Phone Ban Enforcement Program Yields Good Results

Most motorists know it’s dangerous to use a hand-held cell phone or send text messages while driving. But it can be hard to wean ourselves from the handy little devices. A federal agency wanted to see whether a stepped up enforcement program in Hartford (including East and West Hartford) could make a difference.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) demonstration program combines dedicated law enforcement for a specific period of time with a media campaign to publicize the crackdown. The project, which has now completed two of four enforcement “waves,” appears to be successful. NHTSA reported a 56% drop in cell phone use and a 68% drop in texting between the program’s start in March 2010 and the end of the second enforcement period in late July. NHTSA considers an enforcement rate of 20 tickets per 10,000 people sufficient to change motorists’ behaviors in effective seat belt programs. The Hartford enforcement rate for cell phone violations was five times that.

But, according to NHTSA, “the intent of a high visibility enforcement campaign is not to issue tickets. Rather the intent is to deter drivers from engaging in that behavior in the first place.” “In other words,” the report continued, “if drivers violate a particular law, there should be a high certainty that they will receive a ticket.” More information on the study can be found at NHTSA's site.

November 3, 2010

New Hydrogen Fueling Station and Buses

As reported in the October 15 edition of CT Environmental Headlines, earlier this month Proton Energy Systems, an on-site hydrogen generation company, and SunHydro, a firm developing hydrogen fueling stations, opened the state’s first hydrogen fueling station at 10 Technology Drive in Wallingford.

Proton Energy Systems and SunHydro are sister companies and the station will run under the SunHydro banner. The solar-powered station marks the start of the East Coast Hydrogen Highway SunHydro is creating to make it possible to travel from Maine to Florida using hydrogen.

Also this month, four fuel cell-powered hybrid-electric transit buses were introduced in Hartford. They join an earlier generation bus that began service in 2007.

Federal Health Care Reform Provisions Effective September 23, 2010

On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed comprehensive health reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, into law.  Several insurance provisions took effect on September 23, 2010 and apply to plans issued on and after that date.  The law prohibits individual and group health plans from (1) placing lifetime limits on the dollar value of coverage, (2) rescinding coverage except in cases of fraud, (3) denying children coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions, or (4) including pre-existing condition exclusions for children.  It also restricts annual limits on the dollar value of coverage (and eliminates annual limits in 2014).  For more information on the federal health care law, see OLR’s Backgrounder, 2010-R-0255.

November 2, 2010

No Social Security COLAs in 2011

The U.S. Social Security Administration has announced that there will be no cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) in Social Security benefits in 2011. This is the second year in a row that benefits will be frozen. The reason for the freeze is that by law, any increases are tied to increases in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-CW) in a certain calendar quarter. Because there was no increase in this index during that quarter, there is no COLA.

OLR backgrounder (2009-R-0385) provides a history of Social Security COLAs.

Recent Study Analyzes the Fiscal Impact of Local-Option Taxes in Massachusetts

The New England Public Policy Center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston released a study in February examining the impact of local-option taxes on Massachusetts’ municipalities. This comes as cities and towns in Connecticut and across the country look for additional revenue sources to close budget shortfalls and reduce their reliance on property taxes. The study analyzes the fiscal implications of Massachusetts’ recently enacted local-option meals tax and potential local-option sales, income, and payroll taxes. It uses Geographic Information System maps to illustrate how local-option tax capacity varies geographically across the state.

The study finds that while local-option taxes provide some towns with considerable new revenue sources, they are likely to exacerbate fiscal disparities. This is because low-income, property-poor towns lack the tax bases for new local-option taxes. The study also finds that the municipalities subject to the fewest cuts in state aid in FY 09 had the most to gain from the new local-option taxes. Those subject to the largest state aid cuts would not be proportionally compensated for their loss in aid.

The author suggests that the state could reduce these fiscal disparities by changing its existing aid formulas to target towns with the lowest local-option tax capacity.

November 1, 2010

Accountable Care Organizations and Health Care Reform

The federal health care reform act attempts to improve the health care delivery system through a variety of incentives. One of these encourages the creation of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). But what is an ACO? Basically, it is an organization of health care providers that agrees to be accountable for the quality, cost, and overall care of patients. At this point, ACOs are just a concept as federal regulators have not yet established the rules for their operation. But as contemplated by the reform act, ACOs would be integrated delivery systems involving doctors, hospitals, and other providers whose reimbursement would be based partly on meeting certain quality and cost measures. Medicare will start using the ACO concept in 2012. Providers are also currently developing ACOs for the private insurance market.

As providers begin to establish these new entities, some questions and concerns have arisen. The most significant is the possibility that providers’ new networks could run afoul of current antitrust and anti-fraud laws in terms of restricting competition or fixing prices. Insurers, on the other hand voice concerns that providers could use the leverage of ACOs to demand higher prices.

For more information see:

Health Care Providers, Insurers: Accountable Care Organizations Bring Legal Worries

JAMA Commentary Reviews Accountable Care Organizations

ACOs: A Quick Primer

Creating Accountable Care Organizations

Education Department Issues Parents’ Guide to Bullying Law

The State Department of Education (SDE) recently issued a guide for parents on what to do if their child is being bullied in school. The guide, which is written in question and answer form, summarizes the state’s school bullying law and addresses such issues as how to find a school district’s anti-bullying policy, how to file a formal written complaint of bullying, and what happens after the complaint. It also provides advice on the kinds of behavior and incidents a parent can report, what to do when the bullying happens outside of school, and how to make schools safer. It includes names and contact information for the SDE and other state agencies and private groups that can help. Bullying and Harassment in Connecticut: A Guide for Parents and Guardians is available on the SDE website.