April 29, 2011

How Will Federal Health Care Reform Impact Connecticut?

The RAND Corporation recently issued a series of reports analyzing the impact of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) on five states: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Montana, and Texas. Analysts used a “RAND COMPARE” model to estimate the impact of the PPACA on coverage and health care spending in Connecticut in 2016, when the law’s coverage expansion provisions will be fully implemented. The report found that:
  • The proportion of Connecticut residents with health insurance will increase from 89% to 95%;
  • While there will only be a slight change in the total number of employees covered through employer-sponsored insurance, roughly 40,000 employees will be covered through the health insurance exchange;
  • By 2016, 10% of the insured population under age 65 will have health insurance coverage through the exchange;
  • Medicaid enrollment will increase by 31%; and
  • While Medicaid spending will increase, total state spending on health care will decrease 10% during 2011-2020 due mostly to federal subsidies for residents who would have been covered under Connecticut’s State Administered General Assistance Program.
 The study was funded in part by the Council of State Governments 21st Century Foundation.

Cap and Trade Proceeds Invested in Energy Efficiency

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Inc. is a non-profit that supports the development and implementation of the 10 participating states’ CO2 Budget Trading Program (Connecticut is one of those states). The initiative released a report on what those 10 states are doing with the CO2 allowance auctions proceeds.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is an agreement between the 10 states to reduce the amount of CO2 their power plants emit through a “cap and trade” program.

Connecticut generated $45 million through the CO2 allowance auction in 2010. The proceeds helped fund utility-administered energy efficiency programs which were overseen by the Energy Conservation Management Board. The steps are projected to save consumers $744 million over the lifetime of the measures.

The other states, which are made up of the rest of New England, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York, are using their proceeds to fund research on clean energy generation and greenhouse gas emissions reductions and to help low-income families pay for their energy needs.

April 28, 2011

Report on Bank-Owned Property Discrimination

According to a recent report based on an investigation by the National Fair Housing Alliance and three of its members, including the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, financial institutions often maintain repossessed homes in predominantly white and some racially integrated neighborhoods better than properties in predominantly African-American or Latino neighborhoods. The report is based on examining 624 bank-owned properties in four urban areas, including Hartford and New Haven counties.

Researchers visited 100 bank-owned Connecticut homes in white, African-American, and Latino neighborhoods with comparative income levels. The properties’ exterior condition was evaluated on a 100-point scale, subtracting points for poor maintenance or curb appeal. Foreclosed properties in white neighborhoods scored 89 points, properties in African-American neighborhoods scored 78 points, and properties in Latino neighborhoods scored 66 points.

The report contends that banks that fail to maintain the homes they own in African-American and Latino neighborhoods risk violating the federal Fair Housing Act because they must maintain and sell these homes without regard to the race or national origin of residents living in the area where the property is located. The report also provides recommendations to decrease racial disparity in and obtain equal opportunity for neighborhood recovery.

State Workers with College Degrees get Paid Less than Private Sector

Connecticut state workers with college degrees get paid less than private sector workers in the state with college degrees. It may seem surprising considering all the attention recently about state employee compensation, but that’s one of the findings according to an analysis performed for the New York Times by demographers at Queens College of the City University of New York. And it’s not unique to Connecticut.

The demographers found a divide based on education when it came to public vs. private sector workers. Natiowide, for those without a college degree, workers in the public sector made 6.3% more. (In Connecticut, it's $51,258 vs. $40,000.) However, nationwide for those with a college degree, workers in the private sector made 19.9% more. (In Connecticut, it's $67,000 vs. $75,805.)

April 27, 2011

Why Product Launches Fail and Lessons to Avoid Failures

An article in the April 2011 edition of the Harvard Business Review explores five factors that cause most product launches to fail and lessons that can be learned from such failures. For example, a common cause of failure is that the product falls short of marketing claims and is criticized for that. To avoid this, the authors suggest that businesses delay a product launch until the product is truly ready for market. Another reason for product failure may be that the item exists in “product limbo,” with minor differences from existing products that are not distinct enough to command sufficient market share. The authors suggest that businesses adequately test products to make sure that they are sufficiently different from competing products to sway buyers.

More Energy Assistance Funds Released

On April 7, 2011 the U.S. Health and Human Services commissioner released $311 million in block grant funding to states to help home owners and renters with home energy costs under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program. Connecticut’s portion of the allocation is $1,038,606.

The department was required to disburse the funds under the federal continuing resolution that expired April 8.

April 26, 2011

No Left Turns?

An article in the January edition of Smithsonian Magazine presents a new study from North Carolina State University saying that superstreets, which require drivers who wish to turn left to instead make a right turn followed by a U-turn, are actually more efficient than traditional intersections. The researchers collected data from three superstreets in North Carolina that had traffic lights and looked at travel time for both right and left turns as well as passing straight through. They also examined collision data from 13 superstreet intersections in that state that didn’t have traffic lights. The study shows a 20 % overall reduction in travel time compared to similar intersections that use conventional traffic designs, according to the article. They also found superstreet intersections experience an average of 46% fewer reported automobile collisions and 63% percent fewer injury collisions.

How Safe is Your Federal Tax Return Information?

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) collects and maintains a significant amount of personal and financial information on each American taxpayer. But a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found a number of security weaknesses in IRS systems and procedures that put sensitive information at an increased risk of unauthorized disclosure or destruction.

As part of its annual audit of the IRS, the GAO found that it had failed to correct 74% of previously reported weaknesses. And the GAO identified 37 new vulnerabilities in this year’s audit that could jeopardize the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of sensitive taxpayer information.

You can learn more about the report’s findings in this audio interview with GAO staff.

April 25, 2011

Houses Are a Bad Bet (My, How Things Have Changed!)

People buy houses out of faith and necessity, housing analysts say. Five years ago, people bought homes partly because they would appreciate to the point where they sell them for more than their mortgages. But recent housing statistics suggest that faith is coming up short these days. Housing prices slid for the sixth straight month in January and the leading home price index registered a 1% for that month, putting the slide from its 2006 peak at 31.8%. These trends seem to reflect the recent 8.6% drop in the consumer price index.

People feel housing is a bad bet, according to a recent New York Times article. The millions of homes in foreclosure are not on the market, which could gut the housing inventory and push prices down even more. In fact, lenders placed 21% fewer homeowners in foreclosure in January than they did in November, even as the number of loans in severe default held steady. “One reason for fewer foreclosures is that more struggling borrowers appear to be making deals with their banks.”

Low-Performing Schools Rarely Turn Around or Close

A study published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute contains sobering news for those hoping to transform or close persistently low-performing public schools. After tracking the progress of 2,025 charter and regular public schools in 10 states for five years, researchers found that 72% of low-performing charter and 80% of low-performing regular public schools remained in operation – and remained poor performers.

The results challenge federal and state accountability policies seeking to either turn such schools around or shut them down, says Fordham president Chester E. Finn, Jr. Among the study findings:
  • Barely 1% of the low-performing charter or regular schools dramatically improved their performance and only 9% improved even moderately over five years.
  • After five years, although 19% of charter schools and 11% of regular schools with consistently poor performance were closed, the vast majority lingered in limbo, neither getting off accountability life support nor being closed by governing authorities.
  • Poorly performing charter and public schools were more than twice as likely as better performing schools to be located in an urban center. They also had twice as many poor and minority students as their better performing counterparts.

April 21, 2011

Public Policy Options for Dealing with Homeless and Throwaway Youth

The Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk recently published “Runaway and Throwaway Youth: Time for Policy Changes and Public Responsibility.” The article outlines the characteristics of homeless youth, distinguishing between throwaways and runaways. It discusses the scope of the problem and federal programs and services that deal with it, such as the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

The study’s conclusions focus on both prevention and emergency care options offered at the community level. Safe and secure housing must be made available, as well as support programs that offer mental health counseling, life skills training, and formal education.

Wal-Mart v. Dukes

On March 31, 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, a class action employment discrimination case that has worked its way through the legal system for the past decade. Although the original case involved allegations that Wal-Mart discriminated against its female employees on a national scale, the issues before the Supreme Court focused on whether the case could proceed as a nationwide class-action. In other words, does a group of potentially 500,000 plaintiffs who worked at thousands of different stores nationwide share enough legal and factual issues between their individual cases to bring a class-action? The Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision sometime in June.

April 20, 2011

New Federal Guidelines for Handling Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence on College Campuses

The U.S. Department of Education recently released new guidelines for handling sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses. The new guidelines, issued in a “Dear Colleague” letter, address several issues. Among other things, they specify that a school is responsible for investigating and addressing sexual violence, regardless of whether there’s a separate criminal investigation. Schools must also use the preponderance of the evidence standard (rather than clear and convincing evidence) in grievance proceedings that concern sexual harassment or sexual assault. The letter also includes examples of remedies and enforcement strategies that schools and the department may use.

The department’s authority for enforcing these requirements is found in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs or activities operated by recipients of federal financial assistance (which includes almost all colleges and universities). Such discrimination includes sexual harassment and sexual violence.

Limiting Yellow Pages Deliveries in the City by the Bay

San Francisco could become the first city in the nation to restrict delivery of the Yellow Pages. The city’s Board of Supervisors recently proposed an ordinance to create a three-year pilot program that would restrict Yellow Pages distributors from delivering the phonebooks to residents who have not requested or approved of the delivery. The ordinance does not affect distribution in high traffic areas or at events and does not impact White Pages delivery. The board estimates that 1.5 million unsolicited Yellow Pages phone books are delivered in the city each year. The Yellow Pages Association has launched a website allowing all consumers to opt out of receiving Yellow Pages deliveries. The website also contains a copy of the organization’s Sustainability Report and information on how to recycle the phonebooks.

April 19, 2011

Debit Cards Have Surpassed Checks as Most Common Noncash Payment Method

Debit cards are now the most common noncash payment method nationally, with checks representing less than a quarter of such payments. This is according to the 2010 Federal Reserve Payment Study, released in April 2011.

The study estimates that in 2009, 35% of noncash payments were made with debit cards, up from 26% in 2006. 22% were made by check, down from 32% in 2006. The rest were made by credit card (20%), automated clearinghouse payments (18%), and prepaid cards (5%).

The study estimates that 109 billion noncash payments were made in 2009, compared to 95.2 billion in 2006. The total value of the 109 billion transactions was $72.2 trillion.

The study also estimates that there were 6 billion ATM withdrawals in 2009, with an average withdrawal of $108.

April 18, 2011

Using Open Source Software in Government

While purchasing software from an established company is the norm for people and governments alike, there are alternatives. One of those is open source software, which is the term for software developed collaboratively by individuals for free.

A recent article in Government Technology highlights the Portland, Oregon-area Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District that has switched three GIS software programs from ones they purchased to open source software. The district has hired a third-party company to provide any support with the open source software. Budgetary savings and meeting all of the district’s needs were cited as reasons for the switch.

Study Finds Building Bike Lanes Gives Biggest Bang for the Buck

A December 2010 study of road projects in Baltimore found that, for a given level of spending, on-street bike lanes created the most jobs. The study, by the University of Massachusetts’ Political Economy Research institute, looked at five different types of infrastructure projects: sidewalk and footway repairs; on-street bike lanes; planned bike boulevards; road repairs and upgrades; and basic road resurfacing.

The study found that for every $1 million spent, the on-street bike lanes created 14.4 jobs. Next, in descending order, were bike boulevards (11.7 jobs per $1 million); pedestrian projects (11.3 jobs); road repairs and upgrades (7.4 jobs); and road resurfacing (6.8 jobs).

The study looked at the creation of direct jobs (such as in engineering and construction); indirect jobs (e.g., cement and sign manufacturers) and “induced” jobs (at food services and retail businesses where direct and indirect workers spend their earnings). The researchers found that the more labor-intensive a project is, the more jobs it created.

April 15, 2011

GAO Finds Problems with National Flood Insurance Program

The federal Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan Congressional office, issued a report about the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The report outlined three problems it found with the program. First, NFIP isn’t likely to amass a financial surplus as a bulwark against disasters because of the way it is designed. Second, there’s a disconnect between premium rates and flood risk, including allowing for grandfathered rates that are much lower than they should be, based on the risk. Finally, NFIP is not allowed to deny insurance because of frequent losses in a specific location. Thus, there are “repetitive loss properties, which represent only 1% of policies but account for 25 % to 30% of claims.”

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the flood insurance program, as of January 1, 2011, Connecticut had 38,514 flood insurance policies in force protecting $8,718,955,600 worth of property.

$0 Energy Bill For New Building

A New York Times article describes the largest net-zero energy office building in the nation. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Research Support Facility building in Golden, Colorado is cited as a template for how to do affordable, super-energy-efficient construction. It uses off-the-shelf technologies, such as window louvers that cast rays up into the interior office spaces and giant concrete mass in the sub-basement to hold and store radiant heat. The construction cost of the building, which opened earlier this year, was $259 a square foot, nearly $77 below the average cost of a new super-efficient commercial office building.

April 14, 2011

Can a Single Developer Rebuild a Community?

The New York Times recently profiled a developer who has purchased 20 buildings in downtown Mount Morris – a small, rustbelt village in upstate New York – with the goal of reviving the small community. Since 2007, Greg O’Connell has been buying up buildings in Mount Morris, restoring them, and leasing them to businesses at a discounted rate in exchange for certain “community-building” actions. For example, the businesses must keep their lights on at night, change their window displays at least four times a year, and stay open one evening a week.

April 13, 2011

Connecticut Science Students: Better Than Many, But Still Not Good Enough

According to results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (also known as “The Nation’s Report Card”), 34% of the nation’s fourth-graders, 30% of eighth-graders, and 21% of 12th-graders are performing at or above the proficient level in science. This means that less than one-half of students are demonstrating solid academic performance and competency over this subject matter.

Results for Connecticut show that 40% of fourth-graders scored at or above the proficient level, beating the national average of 34%. Connecticut also bested the national average for eighth graders and 12th graders.

While Connecticut did better than many other states, education leaders here are not satisfied, saying a scientifically literate population is important to Connecticut's economic future and students' future career options. Also, the data shows Connecticut has a persistent achievement gap in learning between its white and minority students.

Transforming Physician Practices to Patient Centered Medical Homes

Both federal and state health care reform efforts are encouraging the use of the “patient-centered medical home” (PCMH). PCMH refers to a health care setting in which primary care clinicians partner with other health care professionals, patients, and their families to provide coordinated, patient-centered care that attempts to optimize outcomes. The country’s first medical home demonstration project, operated from 2006-2008 and involved 36 practices. The health policy journal Health Affairs reports on the lessons learned from this demonstration.

April 12, 2011

Are Public-Private Partnerships the Key to Economic Growth?

States do more than tighten their fiscal belts during economic downturns; some take a second look at their organizational wardrobes. One approach looks to consolidate agencies doing similar things. Some states try to reduce the wardrobe by mixing and matching organizations doing similar things. Others aim to replace their wardrobes with hybrid organizations, combining the fibers of government agencies and private corporations.

One hybrid that seems to be getting a lot of attention around the nation is public-private partnerships. Here’s what’s being said about these partnerships:

• Ohio’s governor proposes “Jobs Ohio,” a privatized economic development entity overseen by an uncompensated board rather than government agencies, reports the Dayton Daily News.

• A recent report from the Competitive Enterprise Institute sounded a cautionary note about forming such partnerships for developing property and highways. These partnerships can lower costs, but also “create significant risk of improper collusion between political actors and politically preferred firms and industries,” the report states.

• The nonprofit think-tank, Good Jobs First, criticized public-private economic development partnerships, citing states that have discarded them because they misused funds, paid excessive bonuses, and awarded questionable subsidies. States establishing a partnership can avoid some of the problems by holding it accountable to the governor and legislature, Good Jobs First recommends.

• Governments considering public-private partnerships face many of the same issues that arise when they consider hiring a private company to collect garbage, maintain parks, or perform other public functions.

How Often Do Litigants Seek Punitive Damages and How Often Do Courts Award Them?

Courts award punitive damages not to compensate an injured plaintiff but to punish a defendant and deter others from committing similar acts. A study by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that:
  • litigants sought punitive damages in 12% of the estimated 25,000 civil trials concluded in 2005,
  • plaintiffs received punitive damages in 30% of the 1,761 civil trials in which these damages were requested and the plaintiff prevailed, and
  • the median punitive damage award was $64,000 but 13% of cases with punitive damages awards had damages of at least $1 million.

Researchers sampled state courts from around the country to reach these conclusions. The data includes tort and contract trials.

The study also finds that parties sought punitive damages most frequently in cases involving tortuous interference with a contract (42% of these trials) and slander or libel (33% of these trials). Individuals suing the government sought punitive damages in 21% of the trials, a higher rate than when suing other individuals, businesses, or hospitals.

The judge or jury awarded punitive damages in 5% of the 14,359 trials where the plaintiff prevailed. Punitive damages were awarded most frequently in trials involving intentional torts (30% of the trials where the plaintiff prevailed), contract fraud (23% of these trials), and employment discrimination or disputes (22% of the trials).

The report includes additional details about the types of claims, types of plaintiffs and defendants, award amounts, and appeals. The report notes that it focuses on punitive damages in the 3% of tort and contract cases that are concluded by trial and there is no information on punitive damages as part of settled cases.

April 11, 2011

Problem Gambling more Common than Drinking Problem

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies, after age 21 problem gambling is far more prevalent than alcohol dependence among U.S. adults (Gambling and Problem Gambling Across the Lifespan, by John W. Welte et al.).

Researchers at the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions conducted two surveys, one involving 14-21 year-olds and one involving people over age 18, and used the combined findings to determine the prevalence of problem gambling and alcohol use across the lifespan. The research found that gambling increases in frequency during the teen years and reaches its highest point in the 20s and 30s. It also showed problem gambling among men is twice that of women and is more frequent and problematic as the socioeconomic status falls.

Relying on Millionaires for Money

States that follow Willie Sutton’s admonition to “go where the money is” find lots of revenue but also lots of revenue volatility, because people whose income comes from internet companies, hedge funds, and Wall Street bonuses can experience sudden wide swings in income. Revenue volatility is problematic for states seeking to fund ongoing expenses and programs.

In its March 26th Saturday Essay, the Wall Street Journal highlights the issue by comparing eight states, including Connecticut, according to their dependence on income tax revenue from wealthy taxpayers. The other states are California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont.

Connecticut ranks second, after New York, in share of state revenue derived from income taxes (49.3%) and fourth, after California, New Jersey, and New York, in percentage of income taxes paid by the top 1% of earners (40%). Each of the high-ranking states has top marginal income tax rates that kick in at high taxable income levels ($1 million for California and $500,000 for Connecticut, New Jersey and New York).

By contrast, Hawaii not only receives less overall revenue (28.4%) from income taxes but its top 1% of earners pay only 20% of that total. Hawaii’s top marginal rate is comparatively high (11%) but it applies to taxable income over $200,000, making it flatter than those of the other states.

April 8, 2011

Teacher Collective Bargaining and Student Achievement

A Note in the March issue of the Yale Law Journal uses an unusual legal situation in New Mexico to draw conclusions about how teacher collective bargaining affects student achievement. In 1999, a six-year-old New Mexico law requiring schools districts to bargain collectively with a recognized teachers’ union expired. The New Mexico legislature reinstated the law in 2003. As a result, between 1999 and 2003, school districts could refuse to bargain with teachers’ unions.

Based on comparative data for the years when mandatory bargaining was in effect and when it was not, the author concludes that:
  • Mandatory teacher collective bargaining laws increase SAT scores, decrease graduation rates, and have no effect on per-pupil expenditures.
  • The effects are large and have big financial implications.
  • Although teacher collective bargaining laws improve student performance, the improvement comes at the expense of lower-performing students.

The author advances several possible reasons for these effects and also summarizes state teacher bargaining laws, arguments for and against teacher bargaining, and the methodological shortcomings of previous research on the subject.

  Benjamin A. Lindy, “The Impact of Teacher Collective Bargaining on Student Achievement: Evidence from a New Mexico Natural Experiment,” 120 Yale L. J. 1130 (2011).


April 7, 2011

First Anniversary of Federal Health Care Reform

It was one year ago that President Obama signed the federal Patient Protection and Affordability Care Act into law. The law is currently being challenged in numerous lawsuits across the country. Kaiser Family Foundation is keeping a scorecard on 25 lawsuits, including a multistate case originating in Florida, in which the law was found to be unconstitutional. Experts expect the cases will be resolved at the Supreme Court.

One Can Hope that Warmer Weather Will Bring More than Just Flowers

Connecticut’s legislature is currently considering several bills that look to streamline the building permit process (e.g., SB 896). However, new home construction has stalled in Connecticut and across the country. Are Connecticut’s low numbers for new home permits in 2011 an indication of the bad winter, as some speculate, or that the economic recovery has stalled? According to a March 24, 2011, Norwich Bulletin article, “new home permits fell 41 percent, to 105 in February from 179 a year earlier, according to statistics released by the state Department of Economic and Community Development,” and this February number “… is the lowest since the 92 posted in January 2009, during the heart of the Great Recession.”

Nationally, NPR reported on March 16, 2011, of the new housing slow down, “[b]uilding permits, an indicator of future construction, fell 8.1 percent to the lowest level on records dating back to 1960.” Perhaps April showers will also bring brighter economic news….

April 6, 2011

Connecticut Receives $33 Million Emergency Home Loan Program Grant

Connecticut received a $33 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help unemployed homeowners pay their mortgages as part of its Emergency Home Loan Program. In early April, the department found that the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority’s (CHFA) mortgage bridge loan program was “substantially similar” to the HUD program, meaning the state can begin administering the program itself. The department expects CHFA to start accepting homeowners’ applications almost immediately.

To qualify for the program, homeowners must:
  1. be at least three months behind in their mortgage payments but be reasonably likely to resume paying it within two years,
  2. reside in the home as their primary residence, and
  3. have a good payment record prior to the cause of their reduced or lost income.
The program works through state agencies and nonprofits. Homeowners will be offered a chance to borrow up to $50,000 with zero interest to assist them in paying off their mortgages.

Reducing Offending Levels of Serious Juvenile Offenders

A recent study of serious juvenile offenders finds that:
  1. most youth who commit felonies greatly reduce their offending over time;
  2. longer stays in juvenile institutions do not reduce recidivism and institutional placement and even raised offending levels in those with the lowest level of offending;
  3. offenders who receive community services after incarceration are more likely to attend school, go to work, and reduce offending; and
  4. substance abuse treatment reduces substance use and criminal offending, at least in the short term.

The study also indentifies two factors that appear to distinguish juveniles whose high rate of offending declines from those whose offending level persists: lower levels of substance abuse and greater stability in daily routines (measured by stability in living arrangements and work and school attendance).

Overall, the adolescents in this study reported very high levels of substance use and it was a “strong, prevalent predictor of offending.” The study finds that treatment appears to reduce substance use and offending at least in the short term. Youth in treatment for at least 90 days with significant family involvement greatly reduced their alcohol and marijuana use and offending over the six months that followed.

The study was sponsored by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in partnership with state and federal agencies and private foundations. It follows 1,354 serious juvenile offenders ages 14 to 18 in Maricopa County, Arizona (metropolitan Phoenix) and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania for seven years after conviction. The offenders were found guilty of at least one serious violent, property, or drug crime (almost all felonies). It is the most comprehensive data set currently available about serious adolescent offenders and their lives.

April 5, 2011

“J.D. Salinger Slept Here”

Ursinus College in Pennsylvania was once home to college student J.D. Salinger, if only for one semester. In 2006, the college announced a J.D. Salinger scholarship in creative writing with an added bonus—the winner would get to spend the first year at Ursinus in Salinger’s old dorm room. The “Salinger” name has since been taken off the scholarship due to objections from his literary representatives. The scholarship has been renamed but the room offer is still available. More information is available in this recent New York Times article.

CT Towns Launch “Neighbor to Neighbor Energy Challenge”

Fourteen Connecticut towns have entered the “Neighbor to Neighbor Energy Challenge,” a three-year community energy savings program funded by a $4.17 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and administered by the Connecticut Clean Energy fund. Participating town residents aim to lower their energy use by 20% through home energy audits, training workshops, and incentive programs with rewards ranging from LED light bulbs and smart thermostats, to electric vehicle recharging stations. The 14 participating towns are Bethany, Cheshire, East Haddam, East Hampton, Glastonbury, Lebanon, Mansfield, Portland, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport, Wethersfield, Wilton, and Windham.

April 4, 2011

Business, Not Personal

Corporations are considered to be persons in the eyes of the law, but does that entitle them to personal privacy? “No”, says a recent Supreme Court decision. The case, FCC v. AT&T, concerned an exemption to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that allows agencies to withhold “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes,” the disclosure of which “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” (5 U.S.C. §552(b)(7)(C)).

In this case, AT&T had provided certain records to the Federal Communications Commission as part of an investigation. When the commission received a FOIA request for those records, it determined that records referring to specific individuals could be withheld because of the personal privacy rights of those individuals. However, it also determined that personal privacy rights did not extend to AT&T itself. The Supreme Court agreed, reversing a decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeal.

Thus, personal privacy remains unique to human beings. But despite being on the business end of the decision, AT&T, wrote Chief Justice Roberts, should not take it personally.

Feds Help You Surf (the Web) Safely

OnGuard Online” is a Federal Trade Commission website with helpful tips on ways to protect you against Internet fraud and to safeguard your personal information. Among other things, the website tells you how to find out if a WiFi hotspot is secure (it’s not secure if it doesn’t require a password), and how to help keep kids safe online. It also has sections such as Share with Care and Interact with Tact to help you think twice before posting or interacting online.

April 1, 2011

Police Turning to Volunteers

The New York Times reports that, due to shrinking budgets, police are turning to volunteers to investigate low-level offenses. This allows officers to focus their attention on more violent criminals. According to the article, a lot of police departments already use volunteers for administrative or menial duties.

Not everyone thinks this trend is a good idea. Opponents argue that it raises legal and liability issues.

Are Federal Judges Underpaid?

Federal judges appear to be stepping up their efforts to convince Congress to increase their salaries, which start at about $174,000. According to a U.S. Court judicial compensation fact sheet, judges’ pay has increased by 39% since 1992, while most federal workers have seen increases of 91%. The judges argue that low salaries threaten the independence of the Judicial Branch and cause good, experienced judges to leave the bench.

Many current and past judges have indicated that financial considerations play a large role in decisions to resign or retire from the bench. The fact sheet notes that judges who have left to become corporate counsels are earning an average of $700,000 in salary and bonuses, plus the possibility of stock options.

Chief Justice Roberts has expressed concern about the lagging salaries: “If judicial appointment ceases to be the capstone of a distinguished career and instead becomes a stepping stone to a lucrative position in private practice, the [U.S. Constitution’s] Framers’ goal of a truly independent judiciary will be placed in serious jeopardy.”