May 31, 2012

New Poll Finds U.S. Supreme Court Favorability At A New Low

According to the Pew Research Center, 52% of those surveyed have a favorable view of the U.S. Supreme Court, the lowest level of support in the 25 years the center has conducted the survey (Pew has conducted 11 surveys since 1987). It also found that 29% have an unfavorable view of the Court, just below the highest unfavorability level recorded in the survey (30% in 2005).

The survey found little difference based on politics, with the Court receiving low favorability ratings from Republicans (56%), Democrats (52%), and independents (52%).

Of the 11 polls Pew conducted, the latest survey is the only one where members of the president’s party gave the Court a lower rating than those of the opposing party.

Pew’s survey also examines whether opinions about the 2010 health care law, the subject of recent hearings before the Court, affect the public’s view of the Court.

May 30, 2012

Hot Report: Regulating Homeowners' Insurance Rates

OLR Report 2012-R-0227 describes the state law regulating homeowners' insurance policy rates.

State law (1) prohibits inadequate, excessive, or unfairly discriminatory homeowners' insurance rates and (2) requires property and casualty insurers to file with the insurance commissioner their rates, supplementary rate information, and any supporting information used for the rates (CGS §§ 38a-686 and 38a-688).

By law, a rate is inadequate if it is unreasonably low for the insurance provided and its continued use would endanger the insurer's solvency, destroy competition, or create a monopoly. Whether a rate is considered excessive depends on whether the existing homeowners' insurance market is competitive or noncompetitive. A rate in a competitive market is not excessive. A rate in a non-competitive market is excessive if it is unreasonably high for the insurance provided. The law does not define an unfairly discriminatory rate.

The level of the Insurance Department's oversight of rates depends on the status of the market. In a competitive market, insurers must file homeowners' insurance rates and supplementary rate information with the insurance commissioner but may use the rates without his approval (“file and use” system of rate regulation). The commissioner retains the power to approve rates before they take effect. In a non-competitive market, insurers must receive approval from the department before using the rates (prior rate approval). The commissioner may disapprove a rate filing if the insurer fails to comply with rating requirements whether the market is competitive or noncompetitive. The state's current market is competitive, according to the Insurance Department.

Irrespective of the market conditions, the law permits insurers, until July 1, 2013, to file and use new rates for homeowners' insurance without the Insurance Department's prior approval if the rates increase or decrease by no more than 6%. This is referred to as “flex rating.”

For more information, read the full report.

Elderly Women’s Poverty Crisis

A recent report by Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., found that three out of five women over age 65 are unable to cover their basic, daily expenses. The report analyzed seniors’ living circumstances in comparison to the “Elder Economic Security Index,” which measures income needed to age in place in the community and meet basic daily expenses. The index defines “economic security” as income from pensions, Social Security, retirement savings, and other sources sufficient to meet necessary daily expenses without having to borrow or use a public assistance program.

The report found that 42% of all women, 63% of African-American women, and 66% of Hispanic women lack economic security. It cites female pay inequities and interruptions in workforce participation due to motherhood and other caregiving responsibilities as likely causes. In addition, women tend to outlive their male spouses, increasing their chances of living alone for part of their senior years and using up their savings.

May 29, 2012

OLR's Acts Affecting Reports

The Office of Legislative Research has finished with its Acts Affecting reports. The reports highlight acts passed in a number of policy areas in the most recent regular session.

99 Weeks of Unemployment Benefits Ending

According to a new report by the state’s Department of Labor (DOL), the state’s declining unemployment rate has led to a reduction in the length of time that a claimant can receive unemployment compensation benefits. Since 2008, claimants have had to access 99 weeks of unemployment benefits: 26 weeks from the state’s standard unemployment system, 53 weeks from the federal emergency unemployment compensation program, and 20 weeks from the federally funded extended benefits program.

However, access to the federal benefits depends on the state’s unemployment rate being above certain thresholds. Due to steady declines in the state’s unemployment rate, in February access to the emergency benefits was reduced to 47 weeks, and starting on May 12, 2012, the state no longer qualifies for any extended benefits. This means that 73, and not 99, weeks of benefits are now available.

The DOL estimates that these changes have affected almost 13,000 claimants and has developed a plan, in coordination with the Department of Social Services and United Way, to help them access various services.

May 23, 2012

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) uses “Waffle House Index” to determine storm severity

According to the Wall Street Journal, FEMA uses the Waffle House’s menu to determine the severity of a storm.

“Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, which means the damage is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, which means the power is coming from a generator at best and food supplies are low. Red means the restaurant is closed, which is a sign of severe damage and unsafe conditions.”

Waffle House Inc. has 1,600 restaurants from the mid-Atlantic to Florida and across the Gulf Coast, which are areas that are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes. The company has developed a manual for opening after a disaster (including what to serve if there is gas but no electricity, or a generator but no ice), bought portable generators and a mobile command center, and given employees emergency contact information.

Montana Court Says No to Ban on Birth Control for Teens Covered by Public Health Insurance

The Montana Missoulian is reporting that a Helena district court judge earlier this month declared unconstitutional that state’s ban on prescription birth control coverage for teenage girls enrolled in the Healthy Montana Kids program, that state’s version of the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (HUSKY B in Connecticut). The state constitutional grounds included a teen’s right to privacy and the rights of “persons not adults.”

The court found that the state had failed to (1) provide a compelling reason for excluding birth control from coverage and (2) show how excluding it from coverage enhanced the rights of minors, both of which would be required in order to overcome the constitutional challenge. The court instead pointed to the state’s desire to reduce teenage pregnancy as a compelling state interest to support continuing the coverage. And it found that a teenager’s right to privately determine whether to become pregnant was fundamental.

The state has 60 days to determine whether to appeal to the state’s Supreme Court.

May 21, 2012

New Probate Court Rules Regarding Confidentiality of Social Security Numbers

New rules will take effect July 1, 2012 regarding the confidentiality of social security numbers (SSNs) and employer identification numbers (EINs) on documents filed in probate court. For example, the rules require anyone filing documents with the court to omit SSNs or EINs and to redact any SSNs or EINs that appear on the documents, except as specifically requested in an official court form or otherwise provided by law or court order.

If an SSN or EIN is required in connection with a probate court matter, the number must be reported on a separate sheet, which must contain specified information and remain confidential. The rules limit the circumstances in which the court can disclose the number, only allowing disclosure (1) if the court determines that a person needs the number for a proper purpose directly related to the matter before the court or (2) to government agencies or representatives acting in their official capacity.

May 18, 2012

Severe Weather Has Home Insurers Rethinking Coverage

The April 2012 edition of notes that, as weather disasters occur more frequently, homeowners are often hit with the unexpected loss of homeowners insurance policies as insurers re-evaluate their financial liabilities.

Michael Barry of the Insurance Information Institute notes that 2011 was an extraordinary year for natural disasters which caused insurers to assess whether they are able to absorb severe losses. Some insurance companies have pulled out of “weather-challenged” states, declining to write new homeowners policies and, in some cases, renew contracts with current policyholders. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Irene, Allstate informed approximately 45,000 North Carolina policyholders that it would not renew contracts that were not bundled with auto insurance.

Some organizations, such as the Consumer Federation, have argued that insurers have “hollowed out” the catastrophe coverage by raising deductibles, capping replacement costs, and removing coverage for wind damage if another non-covered event such as a flood also occurs. The industry contests this assertion, noting that it has paid out billions of dollars to millions of customers affected by natural disasters.

May 17, 2012

Hot Report: Insurance Coverage for Contraception

OLR Report 2012-R-0192 compares federal and state religious employer exemptions for insurance coverage of contraceptives as of August 2011.

Both federal and state law requires health insurance policies to cover contraceptives in certain circumstances. State law and federal rules implementing federal law exempt certain religious employers from the insurance coverage requirement. The state exemption appears to be the broader exemption, meaning more organizations would be able to claim the exemption under state law than under the federal rule.

The federal exemption contained in the August 2011 interim final rules is narrowly drawn to apply to nonprofit religious organizations that “primarily” employ and serve people who share the organizations' religious tenets. In practice, Catholic organizations, such as universities and hospitals, seem to hire and serve people regardless of whether they share the organizations' religious tenets. Thus, it appears that such organizations would not qualify for the federal exemption.

The state exemption is broadly drafted to apply to “qualified church-controlled organizations” and church-affiliated organizations. Although the law does not define “church-affiliated organizations,” this seems to include universities and hospitals affiliated with the Catholic Church, regardless of their practices to hire and serve people from the general public.

For more information and greater detail, read the full report.

Congress’ New Insider Trading Law

The President recently signed into law the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act of 2012, which specifies that members of Congress, congressional employees, and other federal employees are not exempt from insider trading laws. It also requires electronic filing and public availability of financial disclosure reports, requires prompt reporting of certain financial transactions, and broadens the list of crimes that would result in a member losing his or her pension.

The act was passed after media reports of Congress members and staff using inside information for personal gain. But, as noted in a Congressional Research Service report, members never enjoyed an exemption from insider trading laws, but the act makes this explicit.

May 16, 2012

Home Buying: Recognizing The Ties That Bind

People consider a lot more than money when deciding whether to buy a home, but bankers and mortgage underwriters mainly focus on the financial factors. “For the average borrower, the mortgage contract is about making a home himself and his family,” wrote Wharton Business School professor Waheed Hussain in the Fall 2009 Communities and Banking. There’s a disconnect between the mortgage contract and the emotional bonds and social aspirations that come with purchasing a home.

Buying a home signifies long-term commitments to places, jobs, and significant others. Would-be homebuyers must then translate their emotion bonds and social aspirations into dollars and cents. For example, “how much should a person making $35,000 a year and living in an area with a high crime rate spend to give a child safer surroundings?”

“Choice Architecture” helps people sort through and weigh these factors by structuring the menu of alternatives presented to borrowers to point them toward a good decision. The menu, Hussain suggested, could be developed by community groups serving ethnic or religious communities that can turn their insights into smart lists that simplify the personal aspect of home buying. For example, if the community group knows that its members tend to have certain transportation needs, it can gather lists of housing options near public transportation when homes come on the market.

Hussain’s point for housing policy analysts and program planners is to understand your customer. “Choice architecture and smart lists, because they take into account both the personal and financial challenges underlying the mortgage decision, can help make mortgage lending a little safer for everyone.”

May 15, 2012

OLR's 2012 Major Public Acts

The Office of Legislative Research has published its 2012 Major Public Acts. The report briefly describes the most significant, far-reaching, and publicly debated acts passed by the General Assembly in its 2012 regular session. Not all provisions of the acts are included. Our 2012 Public Act Summary book, which contains detailed summaries of all public acts, will be available later this summer.

Adolescents Most Likely To Misuse Prescription Drugs at Age 16

A recent Michigan State University study found that adolescents are most likely to misuse prescription painkillers around age 16, rather than during the last year of high-school or college as previously believed.

Researchers analyzed data from the 2004 through 2008 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health to identify when adolescents are most likely to start using prescription painkillers to get high. They found that 1 in 60 young people between ages 12 and 21 starts misusing these drugs each year. Peak risk occurs at age 16 with an accelerated risk between ages 13 and 14.

The results demonstrate the need to understand when the first onset of misuse occurs to increase the effectiveness of prevention efforts. Researchers suggest strengthening clinician prescribing guidelines and introducing earlier school-based prevention programs.

May 14, 2012

Connecticut Supreme Court Rules that Teachers Create Nexus for Scholastic Book Clubs Inc.

In a recent decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that Missouri-based Scholastic Book Clubs, Inc. was subject to sales and use tax because the distributor had a nexus with the state through the activities of local teachers who participated in its program to sell books. The Court decided that teachers who distributed catalogs to students and collected orders were “representatives” of the company, regardless of whether they had a legal or agency relationship with it, for purposes of the sales and use tax statutes. Thus, the company must collect and remit Connecticut sales tax, even though it has no facilities or employees in the state.

According to the Department of Revenue Services, around 14,000 Connecticut teachers voluntarily act as the company’s representatives by soliciting, processing, and delivering book sales to students.

May 11, 2012

Salt Shaker and Your Heart

According to the American Heart Association, the leading cause of death in this country is heart disease and stroke, and eating too much sodium raises this risk. A third of American adults have high blood pressure, which generated $76 billion in medical costs and lost productivity in 2010. Guidelines from the American Heart Association advise getting no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, but most Americans consume twice this recommended daily amount. Americans get most of their sodium from salt in prepared or processed foods (77%). Currently, 27 states, Washington, D.C. and the Virgin Islands regulate the sodium content of foods served in certain facilities (i.e., prisons); and 10 states make it easier for recipients of food stamps (SNAP) and federal Women, Infants and children (WIC) benefits to buy low sodium foods.

Source: NCSL staff legal research, 2011

May 10, 2012

FDA Promotes Judicious Use of Antibiotics in Farm Animals

On April 11, 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced new rules concerning the use of antibiotics in farm animals. According to the New York Times, farmers and ranchers will now need a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics for livestock. Thus, certain antibiotics would not be used for so-called “production” purposes, such as to enhance animal growth. But these antibiotics would still be available to prevent, control, or treat illnesses in food-producing animals under the supervision of a veterinarian. The FDA hopes that this will decrease the instances of antibiotic resistance in humans.

The New York Times reports "at least two million people are sickened and an estimated 99,000 die every year from hospital-acquired infections, the majority of which result from such resistant strains."

May 9, 2012

Moving Energy Just as Contentious as Producing it?

A recent article in the New York Times points out that while most people are aware of continuing debates over energy sources, some of the most controversial energy issues involve how we transport our energy, regardless of the source. Whether it’s traditional fossil fuels like coal and oil, cleaner fuels like natural gas, or “green” fuels like wind and solar power, the resources for large-scale energy producing projects are typically located in remote locations and have to be transported to the populated areas that use the most energy.

While the recently nixed Keystone XL pipeline brought issues with natural gas transmission to national awareness, transmitting wind or solar energy from production facilities offshore, the middle of the plains states, or the middle of the desert can pose its own set of controversies. The article cites green power projects in Texas, California, and New York that have all hit significant delays over constructing new transmission lines to connect renewable power resources with urban centers. It points out that no matter what the energy source, in an increasingly power hungry world we may all have to accept the possibility of an energy highway traversing our backyard.

May 8, 2012

Federal Judge Blocks Texas Rule Excluding Planned Parenthood from State-Funded Women’s Health Program

On Monday, April 30th, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel imposed a temporary injunction allowing Planned Parenthood health clinics in Texas to continue to provide services to women and be reimbursed by the state’s Women’s Health Program. Under new administrative rules adopted by the state, these clinics would have been excluded from participating in the program because they are affiliated with an organization that provides abortions and advocates for the continued legality of the procedure, the national Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The clinics themselves do not provide abortions.

Yeakel ruled on a preliminary basis that the rule was unconstitutional for infringing Planned Parenthood’s freedom of expression and association. He wrote, “By requiring plaintiffs to certify that they do not ‘promote’ elective abortions and that they do not ‘affiliate’ with entities that perform or promote elective abortions … Texas is reaching beyond the scope of the government program and penalizing plaintiffs for their protected conduct.”

A trial has been scheduled for May. State officials have warned that if the rule is struck down permanently, the Women’s Health Program may be cancelled entirely. Texas plans to appeal Yaekel’s ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

May 7, 2012

New York City Department of Education Issues Social Media Guidelines For Teachers

According to the Wall Street Journal, the New York City Department of Education recently issued teacher guidelines for the use of social media in schools. While the guidelines do not ban social media use by teachers, they warn them to keep a bright line between personal and professional accounts. For example, teachers are advised to reject friend requests or other student contact on their personal accounts and to not view students' personal Facebook pages.

This month, the city will start providing training sessions for teachers on the best use of social media in classrooms. The department’s goal is to balance free speech rights and the educational benefits of online learning with the dangers associated with teachers and students becoming too comfortable in less traditional settings.

As the popularity of Facebook and Twitter has increased, so have the number of complaints about inappropriate student-teacher contact. In 2010, New York’s Special Commissioner of Investigation for Schools received 59 complaints that referenced Facebook as compared to two in 2008.

The guidelines state that teacher-student online interactions will be monitored and all school employees "have no expectation of privacy" when using social media. Principals or other supervisors are expected to keep a list of all school-related social media accounts, monitor them regularly, and report any "questionable" behavior. There are no consequences for violating the guidelines if other department policies about appropriate conduct are followed. The guidelines are considered strong recommendations.

New York City is one of a growing number of school districts across the country to implement such guidelines, often in the wake of a scandal.

May 4, 2012

Hot Report: The Castle Doctrine and Stand-Your-Ground Law

OLR Report 2012-R-0172 provides background information on the Castle Doctrine and stand-your-ground laws.

The Castle Doctrine and “stand-your-ground” laws are affirmative defenses for individuals charged with criminal homicide. The Castle Doctrine is a common law doctrine stating that an individual has no duty to retreat when in his or her home, or “castle,” and may use reasonable force, including deadly force, to defend his or her property, person, or another. Outside of the “castle,” however, an individual has a duty to retreat, if able to do so, before using reasonable force. Stand-your-ground laws, by comparison, remove the common law requirement to retreat outside of one's “castle,” allowing an individual to use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat. Deadly force is reasonable under stand-your-ground laws in certain circumstances, such as imminent great bodily harm or death.

Forty-six states, including Connecticut, have incorporated the Castle Doctrine into law. Connecticut law justifies the use of reasonable physical force, including deadly force, in defense of premises. Connecticut courts have recognized the common law privilege to challenge an unlawful entry into one's home, to the extent that a person's conduct does not rise to the level of a crime. Deadly force is justified in defense of one's property by a person who is privileged to be on the premises and who reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent an attempt by the criminal trespasser to commit any crime of violence.

Twenty states have stand-your-ground laws. Generally, these laws allow an individual to use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first if the individual (1) has a legal right to be at the location and (2) is not engaged in an unlawful activity. Connecticut does not have a stand-your-ground law. Connecticut law specifically requires an individual to retreat, if able to do so, before using reasonable force.

For more information, read the full report.

Massachusetts’ Childhood Obesity Rates Drop for First Time in Decades

According to a recent Boston Globe article, researchers at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute found that the percentage of obese girls under age six dropped from 9% to just over 6% from 2004 to 2008. For boys, the rate decreased from almost 11% to just under 9%. The results were less promising when socioeconomic conditions were factored in. Children receiving Medicaid-funded care saw their obesity rates drop from 12.3% to 11.5%, a change the researchers attributed to statistical chance, while children covered by other health insurance saw a statistically significant decline from 10.1% to 8.3%.

The study analyzed electronic records of nearly 37,000 children from birth to age five in a pediatric medical practice located in eastern Massachusetts.

Researchers do not conclude why the rates declined, although they speculate that increased breastfeeding and reduced smoking during pregnancy could play a role. Smoke exposure in the womb can interfere with appetite regulation. Some suggest that the declines may simply result from a much more concerted effort by parents, doctors, and preschools to prevent excessive weight gain.

May 3, 2012

Mortgage Forbearance For Unemployed Homeowners

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac recently extended their forbearance programs to give short-term aid to unemployed homeowners. In these programs, lenders typically allow a borrower to skip or reduce payments for a period of time. But, they often come with terms and conditions, and delaying payments increases the unpaid balance.

The number of homeowners completing forbearance and repayment plans remains high. At Fannie Mae, 26,801 homeowners completed plans in the first nine months of 2011, representing a 13% increase from the same period in 2010. In all of 2008, 7,892 homeowners completed these plans.

Click here for more information on other federal government mortgage assistance programs.

Click here for the Connecticut Department of Banking information on various homeowners’ programs.

May 2, 2012

Hot Report: Utility Terminations

OLR Report 2012-R-0170 summarizes the law regarding residential terminations by utilities. It also explains whether the law requires a utility to notify the municipality where the affected customer lives, so that it could check on his or her welfare.

CGS § 16-262c limits when utilities can terminate residential service. Some of the restrictions apply to all residential customers, e.g., utilities cannot terminate residential service on weekends or holidays. Electric and gas companies and municipal electric or gas utilities may not terminate, deny or refuse to reinstate residential electric or gas service to customers who cannot pay their bills if doing so would create a life-threatening situation for the customer or a member of his or her household. Additional termination restrictions apply to terminations in hardship cases, e.g., low-income customers or those with a seriously ill family member.

The law does not require the utility to notify the municipality where the customer lives of an impending termination. However, in practice, a number of utilities allow customers to designate anyone as a third party to receive advance notice of termination notices.

For a fuller explanation, read the report.

Some Toothbrushes Bad for Teeth

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers to beware of battery-powered electric toothbrushes with parts that can break off, chipping teeth or posing a choking hazard. The dangerous toothbrush is the Arm and Hammer Spinbrush, which the FDA says was sold as the Crest Spinbrush before 2009. “We’ve had reports in which parts of the toothbrush broke off during use and were released into the mouth with great speed, causing broken teeth and presenting a choking hazard,” an FDA consumer safety officer said.

The FDA cautions consumers not to use the brush if they see damage or loose bristles, and to call the manufacturer’s toll free number.

The FDA notes that the manufacturer, Church & Dwight Co., has (1) improved labeling, advising consumers to change the brush head every three months or sooner if the brush is worn or parts are loose; (2) added bristles that change color with wear to give consumers a clear indication when to replace the brush head; and (3) issued a safety notice about the Spinbrush in TV and print ads, on the Spinbrush website, and on its toll-free phone numbers.

A list of Spinbrush models which may potentially cause injury, the manufacturer’s toll free numbers, and more information about the Spinbrush, can be found on the FDA's website.

May 1, 2012

Home Lending Still Tight Despite Banks Easing Rules on Lending

The Federal Reserve (Fed) is reporting that consumers found it easier to get credit cards and auto loans in the first quarter of 2012 as a result of banks loosening credit standards. But standards for home and business loans remain tight. The report was generally seen as a positive sign for the economy.

The Fed surveyed 58 domestic lenders and 23 U.S. branches of foreign banks between March 27 and April 10. The survey found that banks eased their standards for credit-card, auto, and other consumer loans, as well as loans for commercial real estate. In contrast, the standards for home mortgages and business loans were largely unchanged despite a pickup in demand.

In a special set of questions on residential real estate lending, about a third of the banks surveyed said they were participating in the Obama administration's Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP, and "were satisfying most demand." The Fed reported that about half of the banks had "very little participation" in the program.

Another reason for keeping home credit standards tight was the banks fear that they would be forced by mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to repurchase troubled loans.