June 29, 2012

One Year In: Feedback on Tennessee’s Teacher Evaluation Program

As a first-round Race to the Top grant winner, Tennessee has a head start on other states in implementing a new teacher evaluation program. The program’s major elements will seem familiar to anyone following Connecticut’s education reforms:

·         Annual evaluations with 50% of the rating based on student achievement data and 50% on “qualitative” measures, such as classroom observation
·         Five rating levels (significantly above expectations, above expectations, at expectations, below expectations, and significantly below expectations)
·         Use of ratings to inform personnel decisions, including professional development, assignment, promotion, retention, tenure, and compensation

A new report summarizes feedback from teachers, principals, superintendents, parents, business and community leaders, and state and local officials on how the program is working after one year. As might be expected, views are mixed.

On the plus side, educators report having clearer and more rigorous performance expectations and receiving more regular and specific feedback.  They also say the new system has encouraged individual teachers to make more use of student data and led to more district- and school-wide collaboration.  At the same time, many teachers have yet to be convinced of the program’s benefits, have no access to high-quality professional development to help them improve, and find classroom observers’ interpretations of state scoring rubrics inconsistent. 

In addition, two-thirds of the teachers subject to the evaluations work in non-tested grades or subjects. Thus, 35% of the annual ratings for these teachers is based on factors not directly tied to the teacher’s own performance.

Did Virginia Convict the Wrong Person as Often as 15% of the Time in Sexual Assault Cases?

According to an Urban Institute study, DNA testing of physical evidence in sexual assault cases in Virginia closed between 1973 and 1987 showed that as many as 15% of convicted offenders were wrongfully convicted. Authors of the study, who looked at evidence from 634 cases, claim that previous estimates of wrongful convictions were 3% or less.

This was the first large-scale examination of a random sampling of evidence from so many convictions.  

Lead researcher John Roman stated, “These findings are important not only because they highlight the scale of wrongful convictions, but also because there are hundreds of victims in Virginia — and potentially thousands throughout the United States — for whom justice was not served.”

June 28, 2012

Grandma Living in Your Backyard?

While many seniors would like to remain in their own homes as they age, they often face health problems that prevent them doing so. According to a recent New York Times article, rather than place seniors in long-term care facilities, some families are choosing a new option: MEDCottages. Nicknamed “granny pods,” these structures are single-occupancy, mobile medical homes that can be temporarily placed on a caregiver’s property, allowing seniors to receive extended care near their family members. 

MEDCottages were developed in 2010 by N2Care and currently can only be purchased in Virginia. The company is in the process of adding distributors in eight states along the I-95 corridor this year and in the New England states by 2013.

Each unit costs $85,000 and can be sold back to the distributor once it is no longer needed, making it generally less expensive than nursing home care. It essentially creates a free-standing hospital room equipped with the latest technology, including monitoring vital signs, filtering contaminants, communicating with offsite caregivers via video and cell phone, sending medication reminders, and altering caregivers if an occupant falls.

While MEDCottages were designed to comply with local ordinances, some states may prohibit their use. Local zoning ordinances often prohibit the placement of a second dwelling on a single-family property. But some states, including New York, are considering legislation to explicitly permit their use. Virginia passed such a law in 2010. See OLR Report 2012-R-0081 for more information.

June 27, 2012

2012 Acts Affecting Municipalities

Wondering what new or amended laws that the legislature passed in the 2012 regular session will affect your town?  Check out OLR’s Acts Affecting Municipalities report, which includes summaries of all the relevant acts: OLR Report 2012-R-0189.

Hot Report: Lead Testing

OLR Report 2012-R-0226 summarizes of the law's requirements for testing children for lead poisoning.
The law generally requires primary care providers to annually test children between nine and 35 months old for lead. They must also screen children (1) between 36 and 72 months old who have never been screened and (2) children under 72 months if the provider determines it is clinically indicated. In addition, providers must conduct annual lead risk assessments for children ages 36 to 71 months (CGS § 19a-111g). Individual and group health insurance policies must cover the lead screening and risk assessment mandates (CGS §§ 38a-490d & -535).
Lead testing can also be required in other contexts, such as part of school health assessments for new enrollees or for children enrolled in Head Start.

The law requires health care institutions and clinical laboratories to report on tests showing elevated blood lead levels to local health directors, among others. Directors must provide parents with information after tests show that their children have elevated blood lead levels. When a director receives a report that two blood tests taken at least three months apart confirm a child's blood lead level is over a certain threshold, the director must take various actions, including investigating the lead source and ordering remediation.
The Department of Public Health (DPH) is the lead state agency for lead poisoning prevention. Among various other requirements, DPH must provide funding, within available appropriations, to local health departments to help finance their lead poisoning prevention and remediation services. An act passed this session (PA 12-202) establishes eligibility criteria for local health departments seeking such funding from DPH. Among other things, the act conditions a local department's funding eligibility on DPH approving its lead program, which must include case management, education, and environmental health components.

DPH's website contains detailed information on the department's lead poisoning prevention and control program.
The law also provides various requirements related to lead abatement. For example, owners of dwellings with toxic lead levels occupied by children under age six must abate, remediate, or manage the dangerous materials and follow DPH regulations for doing so (CGS § 19a-111c). Local health directors can also order various actions related to lead abatement, such as orders to correct chipped or loose lead-based paint on exposed interior surfaces in rented properties.
For more information, read the full report.

Know Before You Owe: President Obama Signs Order Targeting Deceptive College Recruiting of Veterans

An executive order signed by President Obama aims to protect  military families and veterans from aggressive, inappropriate, and deceptive recruiting by higher education institutions seeking military benefits. The executive order will require colleges to provide more transparent information about student outcomes and financial aid, which will help ensure that students are aware of the true cost and likelihood of completion before enrolling; create a centralized complaint system; and direct the Veterans’ Administration to trademark the term “G.I. bill” so that colleges do not create Web sites resembling official government sites to deceptively and fraudulently market veterans’ educational services and benefits. The executive order will also require that the financial aid form Know Before You Owe  is made available to every college student who participates in the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Tuition Assistance program and direct the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to encourage schools participating in the GI bill program to provide the form to students.  It will also require the DoD to establish rules on access to military installations so that service members are not targeted by institutions known for inappropriate recruiting and marketing practices.

June 26, 2012

“Look Mom, No Hands!”

Driving without your hands on the wheel or feet on the pedals may not be as dangerous as you think it is – if you are operating Google’s new self-driving car.

According to a recent CNNMoney article, Nevada is the first state to license the vehicles, which are still in testing stages and not publicly available. The article explains that the majority of crashes that result in traffic deaths are caused by human-driver error. Quoting the head of auto testing at Consumer Reports, computer driven cars could reduce accidents, but only if all cars are computer driven because humans are better than computers at predicting human behavior.

The self-driving car uses sensors to watch for cars, pedestrians, and other objects; GPS tracking; wheel motion sensors and radar; and software that allows it to read street signs and signals. Some vehicles already use “driver assistance technologies” such as (1) Electronic Stability Control to help drivers maintain control during abrupt maneuvers, (2) blind spot alerts to warn drivers of other vehicles, (3) forward collision alerts to warn drivers when approaching a car too quickly, and (4) active cruise control which automatically maintains a safe following distance behind vehicles at highway speeds.

Over Half of Connecticut’s Teen Drivers Talk or Text While Driving

According to a recent state survey of students’ risky behavior, 53% of teen drivers talked on a cell phone while driving in the spring of 2011.  In addition, 51% also reported texting or e-mailing at least once a month.

The 2011 Connecticut School Health Survey was administered by the health and education departments to public middle and high school students. It assesses students’ tobacco use and behaviors.

June 25, 2012

Increased Superior Court Fees Take Effect July 1

On July 1, 2012, increased court filing fees for various matters take effect, as a result of PA 12-89. The fee increases include, among other things, a $50 increase in the general civil filing fee (from $300 to $350) and a new $600 fee for filing a motion for admission pro hac vice. Under PA 12-89, the fee increases sunset after three years.

70% of the revenue from the act’s fee increases will fund legal services for the poor, and the rest will go to the Judicial Branch’s Data Processing Revolving Fund to maintain and improve the branch’s informational processing system.

The Judicial Branch’s webpage has a chart showing the fee increases, as well as various other fees that have not changed.

Medicaid Audit Cost Five Times More Than It Recovered

A federal program to fight Medicaid fraud has cost the U.S. at least $102 million in auditing fees while identifying less than $20 million in overpayments, General Accountability Office investigators have found. The majority of the audits conducted by 10 contractors were discontinued, produced low or no findings, or were put on hold. More than two-thirds of 1,550 audits of state records since fiscal year 2008 identified $7.4 million in possible Medicaid overpayments.

Audits of state Medicaid records were stopped in February 2011. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has reportedly reassigned the auditors to work collaboratively. This arrangement requires state Medicaid officials to identify health providers or industries they think federal auditors should target.

There are reportedly 137 collaborative audits underway.

Hot Report: Draft Climate Preparedness Plan

OLR Report 2012-R-0185 summarizes the 2011 draft Climate Preparedness Plan.
The draft plan seeks to offer strategies to address the climate change vulnerabilities in the state identified in a 2010 report prepared by the adaptation subcommittee of the governor's Steering Committee on Climate Change. Among the plan's findings are that climate change may threaten agriculture, infrastructure, natural resources, and public health. It makes detailed recommendations in each of these areas, including recommendations on (1) best management practices; (2) research, monitoring, and education; and (3) policy, legislation, regulation, and funding. The draft plan focuses on issues that affect more than one area, such as the impact of climate change on water quality and quantity.

For more information, read the full report.

June 22, 2012

State Insurance Regulators and the Dodd-Frank Act

A recent edition of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Stateline describes concerns raised by state insurance regulators regarding the federal Dodd-Frank fiscal regulation law.  The law rewrites many of the federal rules covering banks and insurance companies to prevent businesses from becoming “too big to fail.”

Many of those changes give the federal government more power. While the bulk of insurance regulation remains at the state level, new federal agencies now have a role too. The new Federal Insurance Office (FIO) will oversee the insurance industry, monitoring it and recommending improvements. The office was scheduled to publish a comprehensive review of how to “modernize and improve” insurance regulation earlier this year, but the much-anticipated document still has not been released nearly six months after it was due.

Depending on what it says, the report could revive a long-simmering debate over whether insurance companies should operate with a national charter —  something that is not currently allowed — instead of submitting to the rules of individual states.

Some insurance regulators have expressed concerns regarding the potential for the FIO to increase its power, especially because it must offer suggestions to improve the insurance market nationally. Another concern is that the federal Financial Stability Oversight Council is allowed to determine which, if any, insurers are “too big to fail.” A number of state insurance regulators and legislators have argued that the council lacks adequate state representation.

Voting Rights Act Upheld by D.C. Circuit Court

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (D.C.) Circuit in Shelby County v. Holder upheld the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the case, Shelby County, Alabama alleged that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority when it reauthorized Section 5 of the act in 2006 for a period of 25 years.

Section 5 requires certain state and local governments (“covered jurisdictions”) with a history of discriminatory voting practices to obtain approval from the Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for D.C. before implementing any change affecting voting. Specifically, preclearance applies to any attempt to change “any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting...in any covered jurisdiction.”

The court affirmed a district court decision that Section 5 remained a “’congruent and proportional’ remedy to the 21st century problem of voting discrimination in covered jurisdictions,” and that failing to reauthorize it would leave minority citizens with inadequate remedies against discriminatory voting laws. It noted that, in reauthorizing the act, Congress compiled a 15,000 page record that found numerous contemporary examples of discrimination in the covered jurisdictions, thus showing a continued need for preclearance.

Shelby County will likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

June 21, 2012

Will Health Care Reform Result in Job Loss?

According to the Urban Institute’s recent evaluation of Massachusetts’ universal health care reform initiative, the answer is no. Economic theory suggests, among other things, that when employers are required to provide health insurance coverage, they will reduce wages and other worker compensation over time in order to pay for these new costs. If collective bargaining agreements prohibit this, employers may instead demand less labor, causing an employment reduction. But, researchers found employment trends in Massachusetts immediately after health care reform was implemented in 2006 and during the subsequent economic recession closely resembled those of states with similar employment patterns to Massachusetts before health care reform.

The Mortgage Foreclosure Crisis’ Dark Cloud and Silver Lining

When policy analysts talk about the law of unintended consequences, they’re usually referring to something bad. The mortgage foreclosure crisis has many bad unintended consequences, as highlighted in OLR Report 2010-R-0019. But this dark cloud turns out to have a silver fiscal lining. That’s what Arizona Revenue Services economist Karen Jacobs discovered as she reviewed 2010 income tax data and found that “refunds were down and tax liability was up even though the state’s unemployment rate peaked that year at 10.8 percent,” Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported.

How could that be? Think it through. What happens when home ownership rates, real estate prices, and interest rates fall? There are fewer people deducting mortgage interest for their income taxes. In addition, consider the impact on revenue when people borrow less or refinance their homes at lower interest rates. In Arizona, these trends converged to produce a 20 percent drop in 2010 itemized deductions. The upshot for the state was $170 million in unanticipated revenue for 2011. Consequently, it’s no surprise that mortgage deduction claims on federal tax returns dropped 14% from 2007-2009.

Still, the silver lining may be a very thin one. The article didn’t mention how the foreclosure crisis affects other tax revenues, such as the property tax, which is based on a property’s fair market value. Nonetheless, it shows economic trends affects tax revenue streams in diverse ways.

June 20, 2012

North Dakota Voters Reject a Property Tax Ban

While voters in North Dakota have overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment to abolish the property tax, state lawmakers are gearing up to make property tax reform a central issue in the next legislative session.

According to a recent article in The Jamestown Sun, the legislature is exploring several possible reform measures, including:

  • Increasing state funding for K-12 education (currently at an average of 70%),
  • Expanding the state’s homestead tax credit to all property owners,
  • Placing caps or controls on local spending, and
  • Reducing state mandates on towns and school boards.
The constitutional amendment would have made North Dakota the first state in the country to place a constitutional ban on the property tax.  The campaign to eliminate the tax comes as the state is awash in oil and gas tax revenues, with projected reserves of $5 billion.

Hot Report: Lead Testing

OLR Report 2012-R-0226 provides a summary of the law's requirements for testing children for lead poisoning.

The law generally requires primary care providers to annually test children between nine and 35 months old for lead. They must also screen children (1) between 36 and 72 months old who have never been screened and (2) children under 72 months if the provider determines it is clinically indicated. In addition, providers must conduct annual lead risk assessments for children ages 36 to 71 months (CGS § 19a-111g). Individual and group health insurance policies must cover the lead screening and risk assessment mandates (CGS §§ 38a-490d & -535).

Lead testing can also be required in other contexts, such as part of school health assessments for new enrollees or for children enrolled in Head Start.

The law requires health care institutions and clinical laboratories to report on tests showing elevated blood lead levels to local health directors, among others. Directors must provide parents with information after tests show that their children have elevated blood lead levels. When a director receives a report that two blood tests taken at least three months apart confirm a child's blood lead level is over a certain threshold, the director must take various actions, including investigating the lead source and ordering remediation.

The Department of Public Health (DPH) is the lead state agency for lead poisoning prevention. Among various other requirements, DPH must provide funding, within available appropriations, to local health departments to help finance their lead poisoning prevention and remediation services. An act passed this session (PA 12-202) establishes eligibility criteria for local health departments seeking such funding from DPH. Among other things, the act conditions a local department's funding eligibility on DPH approving its lead program, which must include case management, education, and environmental health components.
DPH's website contains detailed information on the department's lead poisoning prevention and control program: http://www.ct.gov/dph/cwp/view.asp?a=3140&q=387550&dphNav_GID=1828.

The law also provides various requirements related to lead abatement. For example, owners of dwellings with toxic lead levels occupied by children under age six must abate, remediate, or manage the dangerous materials and follow DPH regulations for doing so (CGS § 19a-111c). Local health directors can also order various actions related to lead abatement, such as orders to correct chipped or loose lead-based paint on exposed interior surfaces in rented properties. If you would like detailed information on these or other lead abatement requirements, please let us know.

For more information, read the full report.

Alcohol-Related Boating Deaths on the Rise

The Hartford Courant reports that the number of Connecticut boating deaths involving alcohol increased nearly fourfold in the latter half of the last decade.  While there were six alcohol-related boating deaths in Connecticut from 2001 to 2005, there were 22 from 2006 to 2010, according to state and U.S. Coast Guard data.  State officials say they have increased enforcement of the state’s boating under the influence laws in recent years, but their enforcement efforts are strained by a cut in staff.  While the number of boating accidents that the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) investigates each year increased from 56 in 2006 to 84 in 2010, staffing of DEEP’s Environmental Conservation Police dropped from 63 officers a decade ago to 50 last year.  The data also shows that when alcohol was a factor, none of the victims were wearing life preservers.

June 19, 2012

Does Domestic Oil Production = Energy Security?

A new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the nation’s energy security looks at the ability of U.S. households and businesses to accommodate disruptions in energy markets and the actions government can take to reduce their effect.  The report finds that the transportation sector is the most vulnerable to supply disruptions due to (1) its overwhelming reliance on one energy source (oil), (2) the oil market’s global nature, and (3) consumers’ limited ability to change how they use transportation. 

In examining available options, the report notes that policies promoting greater domestic oil production would probably not protect U.S. consumers from sudden worldwide increases in oil prices.  Although increased domestic production could decrease overall oil prices, it would encourage greater oil use, making consumers even more reliant on it.  The report also notes that due to the worldwide market, oil exporters (like Canada) are subject to the same price volatility as countries that import all of their oil (like Japan).  It concludes that policies to create incentives for consumers to use less oil would be the most effective in decreasing vulnerability to oil price volatility. 

Logistics, Logistics, Logistics

In a prior entry about how states compete for businesses and jobs, we cited the old military saying, “amateurs discuss tactics; experts discuss logistics.” We cite it again in discussing a recent report about how some U.S. businesses are planning to relocate production (and jobs) back to the U.S.

Last year, the Boston Consulting Group cited rising wages and production costs in China as eroding its competitive cost advantage (Made in America Again: Why Manufacturing Will Return to the U.S.).  In a new report, BCG cites more factors, including “the desire to cut long lead-times, locate production lines closer to design and engineering teams, improve quality control, and reduce shipping costs” (U.S. Manufacturing Nears the Tipping Point: Which Industries, Why, and How Much?). 

Where’s the proof that companies are returning home? The report citied these examples:
·     Water irrigation controls manufacturer ET Water Systems recently relocated production and assembly from China to San Jose, California because it was faster and cheaper to make things in San Jose. It also discovered that quality and yield improved after the move and innovation and product development accelerated.
·     High-end cookware manufacturer All-Clad Metalcrafters is bringing lid production back to the U.S. to be closer to both customers and its main factory and to reduce capital costs.

If these moves are part of a broader trend, the economic consequences could be significant. BCG estimates that the relocation of manufacturing jobs from China, combined with increased exports due to improved U.S. competitiveness compared to Western Europe and other major developed markets, will directly and indirectly create 2 million to 3 million jobs in the U.S., reduce unemployment by 1.5 to 2 percentage points, and lower the non-oil-related merchandise deficit by 25 to 35 percent.

June 18, 2012

A Teacher Tenure Case: Unfairly Picked On or a Bad Teacher Who Should be Fired?

The Washington Post takes a close look at one teacher tenure case that went the distance: 21 witnesses at a public dismissal hearing for a veteran teacher involved in her union.

The Post provides a look at a number of hard questions. The article asks, "What makes a good teacher? What makes a bad one? And how do you tell the difference?  These are questions with no certain answers."

Teen Driving Deaths at Record Low

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the number of teen driving deaths dropped 65% from 1975 to 2010.

Bruce Hamilton, coordinator of research and education at the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, attributes the drop in teen driving deaths to the graduated driver’s license policies implemented in various states, including Connecticut.

Additionally, more teens are waiting longer to get their driver’s licenses. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 30.7% of 16 year-olds got their licenses in 2008, compared with 44.7% in 1998.

June 15, 2012

Customers Confused About Bank Overdraft Fees

In August 2010, the Federal Reserve issued new rules requiring customers to consent to overdraft coverage on their debit and ATM cards. But, according to a survey commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts, most people who were charged fees did not know they were enrolled in an overdraft program. The survey found that young cardholders and those with an income less than $30,000 were twice as likely to be charged fees as those who were older and wealthier.

According to Pew, the median overdraft fee is $35.

Gift Cards Don’t Expire

In this season of Father’s Day, and graduations, the Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) is reminding consumers that pre-paid gift cards and gift certificates sold in Connecticut do not expire.

State law prohibits anyone from selling a gift card or certificate with an expiration date. These include gift cards, gift certificates, electronic gift cards, and store cards, but not prepaid phone calling cards. However, DCP cautions consumers that even though the cards and certificates do not expire, they should be used promptly, because stores that issue them may close down without warning.

Anyone who has had a problem redeeming a gift card issued in Connecticut should contact the store or business that issued it. If that proves unsuccessful, the consumer should contact the Federal Trade Commission (1-877-FTC-HELP). They may also contact DCP for cards issued by Connecticut stores, restaurants, or businesses.

June 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homerun for Housing!

Housing scored big in this year’s bonding and budget bills. From affordable housing to mortgage assistance, congregate housing, rental assistance, and housing development—the General Assembly okayed more funding for housing initiatives during the 2012 session than it has in the recent years. The Partnership for Strong Communities’ website provides a nice rundown on exactly how much the legislature approved and where it will go.

June 13, 2012

Survey: Transportation Workers Affected by Lack of Sleep

A recent poll of transportation workers, such as train operators (engineers and conductors) truck and bus drivers, and pilots, found that a lack of sleep has affected their job performance.

The survey, conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, found that “about one-fourth of train operators (26%) and pilots (23%) said sleepiness affected their job performance at least once a week, compared to about one in six (17%) non-transportation workers.”

“Perhaps more disturbingly,” the Foundation stated, “a significant number say that sleepiness has caused safety problems on the job.” The study found that “one in five pilots (20%)admit that they made a serious error and one in six train operators (18%) and truck drivers (14%) said they have had a ‘near miss’ due to sleepiness.”

According to the Foundation, “roughly one in ten Americans say they are likely to fall asleep at an inappropriate time and place, such as during a meeting or while driving.” Its study found that “11% of pilots, train operators, bus, taxi, and limo drivers and 8% of truck drivers as well as 7% of non-transportation workers are “sleepy.”

Hot Report: Pension Plan Terminations

OLR Report 2012-R-0200 explains how a private sector pension plan can be terminated.

According to the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), private sector defined benefit pension plans can be terminated through (1) standard termination, if the pension plan has enough money to pay all benefits owed to participants, (2) distress termination, if the employer is in financial distress, or (3) involuntary termination, if the PBGC must intervene to protect plan benefits.

The PBGC was created by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to protect the pensions of participants in private defined benefit pension plans. ERISA sets minimum standards for private pension plans, including standards for participation, vesting, benefit accrual, funding, and pension management responsibility. Under ERISA, most private defined benefit pension plans are required to obtain pension benefit insurance through PBGC. Additional information on pension plan termination can be found at http://www.pbgc.gov/prac/terminations.html

For more details, read the full report.

New Jersey Case Finds No Liability for Person Who Texted Driver Before Crash

As reported in the New Jersey Law Journal, a New Jersey trial court judge recently dismissed civil aiding-and-abetting claims against a woman (age 17 at the time) who sent a text message to a driver right before an accident. The judge ruled that under the facts presented, the woman did not owe a duty of care (Kubert v. Best, MRS-L-1975-10).

In the case, a 19-year old man was driving his pickup truck when he lost control and hit a couple on a motorcycle, severely injuring them. Phone records showed that the driver and a woman exchanged three text messages in the minutes before the accident.

The couple alleged that the woman who sent the text message knew or should have known that the recipient of the message was driving, and thus she, as well as the driver, was at fault for the accident.

In his oral opinion from the bench, the judge noted that it was the driver who initiated the text exchange preceding the crash.

According to the article, the woman’s lawyer argued that it would be “unfair and unworkable to impose a duty on texters because they have no control over when, where or how recipients will read and respond to their messages.”
In his opinion, the judge stated that he was unable to find any precedent directly on point, either in New Jersey or other states. The closest case he found was a North Carolina federal court case in which the court dismissed a products liability claim brought by people injured when a tractor-trailer hit a car, allegedly because the driver was distracted by a dispatcher’s text message. The suit faulted the tractor-trailer communications system because it allowed the driver to receive texts while the vehicle was in motion.

June 12, 2012

Law Enforcement Meets Star Trek

A hand-held Star Trek type scanner that can be programmed to recognize drugs or explosives in seconds is increasingly being used by federal narcotics officers to detect drugs and by law enforcement in forensic work, according to an article in The Atlantic. The device looks like a vintage cell phone and weighs about 13 ounces. It can be programmed to detect about 100 narcotics, according to Delta Nu, a manufacturer of the devices. Held against a bag of white powder, it emits a beam of laser light that in 20 seconds can tell whether a substance is heroin, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, or powder, thereby eliminating the expense and wait time associated with sending samples to a laboratory for testing.

College Dropouts Burdened by Student Loans

While there’s been much news recently about college graduates burdened by student loan debt, the situation is much worse for students who do not complete college. According to a recent Washington Post article, nearly 30% of students who took out loans for college dropped out of school, and dropouts are four times more likely than graduates to default on their loans.

In addition to the debt, students who do not complete college earn on average significantly less income than their peers who do graduate. According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2010, individuals age 25-34 with a college degree earned 114% more than did those with only a high school diploma. The article also points out borrowing money is a reality for a significant majority of college students: the percentage of students taking out loans in 2009-2010 was 50% at four-year public institutions, 63% at four-year private nonprofit institutions, and 86% at four-year private for-profit institutions.

June 11, 2012

Expanding Insurance Coverage May Not Suffice to Increase Addiction Treatment

A recent study of Massachusetts’ experience shows that extending required health insurance coverage to include substance abuse treatments may not be enough to increase the treatment rate for people with addictions. This is according to a recent study in Health Affairs.

Like the federal Affordable Care Act, Massachusetts’ universal health insurance law includes substance abuse services as an essential benefit. Yet according to the study, the rate of substance abuse treatment in Massachusetts remained relatively stable two years after the state’s law was enacted, when compared to the treatment rate two years before it was enacted. In assessing treatment rates, the study considered treatment admissions, volume of delivered services, and service revenues and expenditures.

Among other things, the study found that the percentage of uninsured Massachusetts residents who are substance abusers remains high (about 3% of Massachusetts residents remain uninsured). The study also found that among the insured, copayments may deter treatment. The authors suggest that to increase substance abuse treatment rates, in addition to insurance coverage, changes may be needed in other areas, such as eligibility criteria and incentives to seek treatment.

Hot Report: À La Carte Cable TV Options

OLR Report 2012-R-0194 explains why cable subscribers generally cannot choose TV channels on an à la carte basis, e.g., choosing whether or not to subscribe to a particular sports network without also subscribing to other channels in a service tier or vice versa. (Much of the information in the report is taken from a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) website,  and a report by the Congressional Research Service.)

The state does not have jurisdiction in this area. The FCC, which does have jurisdiction, has declined to require cable companies to offer their services on an à la carte basis. It has conducted two investigations of this option, producing conflicting findings as to whether this approach would save or cost subscribers money.

In practice, a cable TV company can select the channels and services that are available on its system. With the exception of channels that federal law requires to be carried on the basic tier, the cable company has broad discretion in choosing which channels will be available and how they are packaged and marketed to subscribers. The cable company negotiates the terms and conditions for carrying channels and other services on the cable system with their providers. Terms may include whether the channel or service will be offered in a package with other programming or on à la carte or pay-per-view basis. Some cable companies provide some channels on these basis or as part of “themed” tiers.

For more details, read the full report.

Sunday Sipping: State Excise Taxes on Wine

In honor of Connecticut’s first weekend of Sunday alcohol sales, we decided to link to a Tax Foundation Monday Map comparing total state excise tax rates on off-premises sales of wine. The comparison includes the state’s alcoholic beverage tax plus any applicable sales tax.

Connecticut’s tax rate is 72¢ per gallon, the highest of the six New England states and the second highest in the Northeast behind New Jersey’s 88-cent tax. Our neighboring states of New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, have tax rates of 30¢, 55¢, and 60¢ per gallon, respectively.

But even though Connecticut’s tax rate is high for the region, it ranks only 25th among the 45 states that impose such taxes. Alaska’s rate is $2.50 per gallon and Florida’s is $2.25. Louisiana has the lowest tax rate of any state, levying a mere 11¢ for each gallon. Texas and California, each at 20¢, are tied for second-lowest.

June 8, 2012

Full Stop for NLRB’s Speedy Election Rules

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has wide discretion on how to implement the National Labor Relations Act. But it turns out it needs a quorum to do so.

As noted by the Employer Law Report blog, “The NLRB was issued a stunning rebuke [May 14] by U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg (an Obama appointee) when he ruled that the NLRB’s controversial union election rule changes were invalid because they were enacted without the required three-member quorum.”

After that the Board itself reconsidered the new rule changes, which are aimed at streamlining the process for holding private sector union elections. Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce reiterated his support for the rule changes, pending review of legal options, but not just yet.

The rule changes, which were to take effect April 30, 2012, would narrow the focus of pre-union election hearings, consolidate appeals to the NLRB, and take other steps aimed at more quickly resolving issuing around employee representation, i.e., unionization.

Will Discount Chains Erode Vermont’s Signature “Vermontiness?”

The New York Times recently profiled a group of residents and businesses in Chester, Vermont that is fighting a proposed Dollar General store in the town’s center. Supporters argue that the store will expand the town’s tax base and residents’ retail options. Opponents contend that the store will erode the town’s bucolic character and drive local shops out of business.

Chester’s Development Review Board, which narrowly approved the 9,100 square-foot Dollar General, is requiring the retailer to meet 35 conditions, including that it use wood siding, instead of vinyl, and keep its shopping carts inside. Dollar General on its own proposed a building with a peaked roof, cupola, and faux hayloft door.

But the project may be stalled under Vermont’s Act 250, a state law that authorizes regional boards to reject development based on environmental, social, and fiscal concerns.

June 7, 2012

Healthcare Tax Credit Underused

Millions of small businesses failed to claim tax credits they could have received under the federal healthcare reform law, according to a report from the advocacy group Families USA.

The report says more than three million businesses were eligible for the new healthcare credit in the 2011 tax year. The White House, however, has estimated that only 360,000 businesses received the credit.

Under the tax credit, businesses that have fewer than 25 full-time workers and average wages of less than $50,000 are eligible to receive a tax credit of up to 35% of the cost of the health insurance that they provide for their workers. To qualify for the tax credit, small businesses must cover at least 50% of each employee’s health insurance premiums. In 2014, the size of the credit increases to cover up to 50% of the cost of health insurance provided to workers.

Hot Report: Local Option Property Tax Relief for Seniors

OLR Report 2012-R-0222 explains (1) what state laws authorize municipalities to establish local option property tax relief programs for seniors and (2) which towns have created such programs.

Currently, the state funds a “circuit breaker” property tax relief program for qualified elderly and disabled homeowners that provides a property tax credit based on the participant's income and marital status. In addition, there are two laws allowing towns, without state reimbursement, to provide property tax relief to seniors. The first allows towns to freeze the property taxes for homeowners if they or their spouses are age 70 or older and meet the circuit breaker program's income limits. The second allows towns to offer, with certain restrictions, seniors age 65 and older additional “local option” tax relief without income criteria. This law allows, but does not require, towns to set maximum income limits. The tax relief can take any form, including freezing tax payments at specified levels. The state does not reimburse towns for these programs.

According to the Commission on Aging's (COA) February 2008 report, “Property Tax Relief for Older Adults: A Profile of Connecticut's Local Programs,” (last updated in 2009)108 towns currently offer local option tax relief programs for the elderly, including credits, deferrals, abatements, and freezes.

For more information, read the whole report.

Are Corporate Political Donations Good for Shareholders?

According to this article in TIME and researchers from the University of Kansas and the University of Minnesota, the answer is “no.” The researchers examined data on corporate political donations from 1991 to 2004. Among their key findings:
  1. for every $10,000 in direct political donations a company makes, its share price underperforms by 0.074% annually translating into an average “cost” to shareholders of $1.33 million in market value;
  2. companies with high donation rates are large and slow-growing with more free cash flow, yet they engage in less R&D (research and development) and investment spending; and
  3. better corporate governance (smaller boards, CEOs who are not also the chairperson of their board, less abnormal CEO compensation, larger block ownership, and larger institutional ownership) is associated with smaller donations.

 As one of the researchers stated in this press release, “better governance may reduce donations… and companies like IBM and Colgate-Palmolive completely bar political contributions in their codes of conduct,” and the study “finds no evidence that shareholders benefit from corporate political donations.”

You can read the full report here. 

June 6, 2012

Sunday Alcohol Sales begin in Connecticut

With the passage of PA 12-17, off-premise Sunday alcohol sales began on May 20, 2012.

According to the Connecticut Post, there were calls to package stores to make sure they were open on Sunday.  Some stores had big signs stating “We Are Open.”

Even though package store owners had mixed feelings about opening on Sunday, it appears consumers were happy for the extra convenience.

Tips for Preventing Forest Fires

According to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), on average, approximately 1,300 acres of Connecticut woodland are scorched by forest fires each year. The spring fire season typically runs from mid-March until mid-May. During the spring fire season and at certain other times of the year, DEEP’s Division of Forestry issues daily Forest Fire Danger Ratings for the state based on how fast a fire travels and drought measures. The ratings range from low to extreme.

To prevent forest fires, DEEP recommends that citizens use fires with caution and
  1. obey local laws regarding open fires,
  2. keep flammable objects away from fire,
  3. keep firefighting tools nearby, and
  4. drown all fires and dispose of hot charcoal with care, and
  5. extinguish smoking materials carefully.

June 5, 2012

NU Receives Second Lowest Customer Satisfaction Score

According to the Hartford Courant, Northeast Utilities (NU), the parent company of Connecticut Light and Power and Yankee Gas, recently received the second lowest customer satisfaction score of the nation’s largest electric and gas companies. While nationwide customer satisfaction with utility companies rose to an all-time high, NU’s score dropped from a 75 last year to a 59 this year, as determined by the American Customer Satisfaction Index survey.

Given the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm, such a steep drop wasn’t particularly surprising. And if there’s a silver lining, NU can look to Pepco Holdings’ which dropped from 70 to 54 a year ago, after suffering significant outages, but rebounded to 69 last year.

Long Island Power Authority, which had its own severe outages following Tropical Storm Irene, beat NU for the lowest score with a 58.

Do State Film Tax Credits Work?

Folks here have been asking that question since Connecticut authorized tax credits for filmmakers in 2006. The answer, according to a recent Ernst & Young report, depends partly on what you expect from the credits and when.

The credits’ key objective is to create jobs and boost incomes in the film and related industries, the reports states. Here the Ernst & Young report refers to the “multiplier effect,” a measure of how a dollar spent on lumber to build a movie set, for example, ripples through the economy. Analyzing a movie credit’s impact should include “the increased in direct economic activity from film production, indirect activity of in-state suppliers and additional in-state consumer spending triggered by the direct and indirect economic activity” (emphasis added).

But what if these effects are small compare to the tax revenue a state gives up because of the credits? Here’s where the time horizon comes in. Obviously, the “short-run goal of the credits is to attract specific films and productions. Film companies employ in-state and out-of-state workers and purchase goods and services from in-state and out-of-state suppliers.”

But the balance between in- and out-of-state workers and suppliers depends on a state’s history supporting the film industry. And it may take time before that balance starts to tilt in a state’s favor. “For states without an established movie production base, initial film productions may have a large component of payments to non-residents and out-of-state suppliers.” But, “as the industry develops over time, a greater share of movie spending supports the long-run goal of creating jobs and incomes for state’s residents.”

Asking policy makers to take this long-term view is difficult when revenues are tight. “From a budget perspective, state legislators and policymakers may be concerned about short-run impacts of the film tax credits on state budgets, asking film credits to pay for themselves.” But, “this short-run budget perspective may conflict with the longer-run economic development objectives of the credit programs.” (Another question policymakers might consider is how the short- and long-term payoffs of film credits compare with the short- and long-term payoffs of credits for other industries.)

The study lays out the things states should consider when evaluating credits, compares how states have evaluated them, and examines the credits economic impact.

June 4, 2012

Comparing Apple to Others

In light of the publicity around conditions at some of Apple Inc.’s supplier factories in China, the iPhone maker welcomed independent factory audits by the Fair Labor Association (FLA). But don’t expect Apple’s rivals to follow its lead, Bloomberg Businessweek reports. Instead such big name rivals as Microsoft Corp., Dell Inc., and Hewlett-Packard Co. are sticking to internal checks that may leave room for violations—and negative public relations according to Bloomberg. These companies rely on their own evaluations, based in part on guidelines from the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), which they say are sufficient to prevent abuses.

While the EICC sets standards for ethics, worker safety and labor practices, it doesn’t require members to disclose findings and it lacks enforcement powers Bloomberg Businessweek reported. The result is a disjointed system of self-imposed regulations that fail to hold companies accountable when abuses arise, according to labor advocates and technology executives.

Bloomberg quoted one chief executive officer of a California-based maker of telecommunications equipment who called the EICC "toothless." The Bloomberg Businessweek article also included a statement from an EICC spokeswoman that the group is not aware of a factory losing business for failing to meet EICC guidelines. She said EICC does not require companies to make public their deals or ongoing business with their partners.

The working conditions at the Foxconn Technology Group’s manufacturing plants has drawn strong criticism. Employees face 11-hour days, six days a week, and those working on iPads face assembly lines that are too fast to allow for any break or rest according to China Labor Watch.

Department of Children and Families to Focus Attention on Child Trauma

The state Department of Children and Families will use a $3.2 million federal grant to provide targeted help for children affected by trauma in all its forms.

On February 3, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz introduced the details of the five-year program that will train agency staff and private providers to help children suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

According to the Connecticut Collaboration on Effective Practices for Trauma (CONCEPT), between 60 and 80 percent of Connecticut children have experienced at least one traumatic event. Untreated or chronic child traumatic stress is linked to neurobiological changes, mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, and other serious health problems.

CT Mirror has more information on child traumatic stress.

June 1, 2012

Teacher Shortage Areas for 2012-13

The State Department of Education has listed 10 teacher shortage areas for the upcoming school year, based on fall hiring data for 2011 (see below). Since most are repeats from prior years, it is clear that many of the shortages are chronic. 

Endorsement Area/Grades

Total Available

% of Available
Positions Filled
by 10/1
Median Number
of Applications
Per Position
Speech and Language Pathologist
World Languages, 7-12
Bilingual Education, PK-12
School Library Media Specialist
Science, 7-12
Intermediate Administrator
Comprehensive Special Education, K-12
Remedial Reading and Language Arts, 1-12
Hearing Impaired, PK-12
Mathematics, 7-12

Districts often fill shortage area positions with minimally qualified hires (those hired from applicant pools of fewer than 20); long-term substitutes; or durational shortage area permit holders, who are typically certified teachers working outside their endorsement areas.

Shortage area teachers are eligible for federal student loan repayment deferral and forgiveness programs as well as state mortgage assistance for buying a home.  Retired teachers who are reemployed in shortage areas can be paid more than the statutory earnings limit while continuing to receive their Teacher’s Retirement System pensions.