December 31, 2012

Kansas City Bishop Convicted of Shielding Pedophile Priest

The New York Times has reported on what is believed to be the first conviction of a Roman Catholic bishop for failing to notify authorities about a pedophile priest.  The bishop had received reports from several reliable sources, including an elementary school teacher and the computer technician who had discovered a cache of pornographic pictures of children stored on the priest's hard drive.

When the priest admitted to having a "problem with pornography," the bishop ordered him to undergo a psychological evaluation, live in a convent, and stay away from children.  The priest continued to interact with children and take pornographic photos of young girls for five more months, until other church officials contacted the police, without the bishop's approval.

At the end of a one-hour, truncated bench trial, the bishop was found guilty of one count of misdemeanor failure to report child abuse and sentenced to two years of court-supervised probation.  The maximum penalty for this crime is imprisonment for one year, a $1,000 fine, or both.

December 28, 2012

Working-Age Adults Visiting Doctor Less Often

A recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that working age adults are going to doctors or other medical professionals less often than a decade ago.  In 2010, people age 18 to 64 visited medical professionals, on average, 3.9 times per year, compared to 4.8 visits in 2001.  The findings were reported in the Census Bureau report, Health Status, Health Insurance, and Medical Services Utilization: 2010.

As reported in the New York Times, the reasons for the decline were not entirely clear.  Demographic change may account for part of the decline.  Also, the share of uninsured working-age people has increased over the last decade.

The report found that the uninsured were far less likely than the insured to have at least one medical visit in 2010 (24% compared to 72%).

December 27, 2012

Creating Fiscally Sound State Tax Incentives: Advice for Legislators

More and more states are establishing and expanding tax incentives to promote economic development. While incentives can help generate jobs and economic activity, they can also generate nasty revenue surprises for state budgets unless they are carefully designed. Louisiana's severance tax exemption for natural gas producers using horizontal drilling is one example. The cost of that exemption, a mere $285,000 in FY 07, jumped to $239 million in FY 10 after the 2008 discovery of a large new natural gas deposit in the state and changes in drilling industry technology.

A new report from the Pew Center for the States highlights these and other tax incentives that turned, unexpectedly, into “blank checks.” Because incentives often function as entitlements, it can be difficult for legislators to rein them in after enactment.  Even if the incentives are later eliminated or scaled back, the credits businesses have already accumulated can continue to create revenue losses over several more years. 

To help avoid such pitfalls, Pew recommends that legislators take the following steps before enacting new tax incentives:
  • Insist on reliable cost estimates produced through a professional and transparent process. Estimates should project both annual revenue losses over several fiscal years and the expected timing of those losses.
  • Because all estimates are uncertain, (1) set regular budgets for tax incentives with annual limits on the total amount of tax incentives and (2) reconsider existing incentives periodically to ensure they are still working as intended.

December 26, 2012

Connecticut Poised to Remain Insurance Capital

The Connecticut Insurance and Financial Services Cluster (IFS) and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) released a November 2012 report on Connecticut's insurance market that shows Connecticut is well positioned to remain the U.S. insurance capital, according to the Insurance Journal

Connecticut is first in the nation in terms of insurance employment as a percentage of overall employment.  The Insurance Journal reports that the insurance industry represents approximately 3% of Connecticut’s workforce, 6% of the state’s payroll, and 9% of the gross state product.  According to the IFS and PwC report, close to 61,600 people in Connecticut were directly employed by the insurance industry in 2011.  Insurance industry employment is expected to grow about 10% over the next decade.  For each new job in the insurance industry, the state economy adds about 1.46 jobs.

December 25, 2012

Is Price Gouging Actually Bad?

According to a recent Time article, the majority of states, including Connecticut, have some sort of price gouging law.  These laws prevent businesses from charging unconscionably high prices, especially after natural disasters such as the recent hurricane.

However, some economists oppose price gouging laws and instead favor allowing the laws of supply and demand to work. Opponents assert that if retailers could raise prices, it would make consumers think harder about what they really needed.  Additionally, it would reward retailers who managed their inventories well.

December 24, 2012

Prison Projects for the Public Good

The New York Times (NYT) reported earlier this year about a Washington State program called the Sustainability in Prisons Project that provides prisoners with the opportunity to engage in habitat and wildlife restoration, among other activities. The program is a partnership between Washington's Department of Corrections and The Evergreen State College. According to the program's website, its mission is to bring science and nature into prisons by conducting ecological research and conserving biodiversity. It also provides financial and social benefits.

The program helps address a budget gap in habitat restoration by performing certain environmental conservation tasks at prison wages. Prisoners benefit by being introduced to a scientific process with a societal benefit. It also encourages good inmate behavior because those participating in the program must not commit violent infractions. Currently, three conservation projects are offered in Washington State's program: (1) raising Taylor's checkerspot butterflies and Oregon spotted frogs, two Washington endangered species, and (2) raising rare, threatened, or endangered native plants for transplant to restoration sites.

According to the NYT article, prisons in other states are seeking ways to operate more efficiently and provide additional benefits. For example, in 2008 Wisconsin began having inmates grow food for prison use. Federal prisons are aiming for zero-net energy use by 2030. And again in Washington State, inmate-operated recycling and composting has reduced the amount of offender-generated waste from 2.9 pounds per day in 2004 to 1.4 pounds per day.

Locally, a program operated jointly by Connecticut's departments of corrections and agriculture cares for and rehabilitates abused large animals with the help of inmate labor. The "Second Chance" Large Animal Rehabilitation Facility is located at the York Correctional Facility in Niantic and, according to the facility's website, over 200 horses have been cared for at the facility.

The U.S. as an Oil Exporter?

The December 18th edition of Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the U.S. expanded its oil production this year by the most since the first commercial well was drilled in 1859. Domestic output grew by a record 766,000 barrels a day, to the highest level in 15 years, government data show, putting the nation on pace to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer by 2020. Net petroleum imports have fallen by more than 38% since the 2005 peak and account for 41% of demand, down from 60% seven years ago, moving the U.S. closer to energy independence than it has been in decades.

This oil rush was spurred by new technology that has made drilling faster, cheaper, and more effective at recovering oil from rock formations. At the same time, it has raised alarms among environmentalists about the potential danger to drinking-water supplies and intensifying greenhouse-gas emissions.

The surge in oil output, coupled with record natural gas production, allowed the U.S. to meet 83% of its own energy needs in the first eight months of 2012, on track to be the highest since 1991, Energy Department data show.

Potentially, the U.S. could become an oil exporter, although exports are limited by rules imposed by Congress following the 1973 Arab oil embargo.

December 21, 2012

What's a Good Economic Development Strategy?

In a nutshell, one that results from hard thinking and hard choosing.  "Strategy involves focus and, therefore, choice," wrote UCLA Anderson School of Management professor and business consultant Richard P. Rumelt in Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters (2011), which focuses mainly on business and military strategy. Unfortunately, bad strategy is the norm. "Bad strategy tends to skip over pesky details such as problems. It ignores the power of choice and focus, trying instead to accommodate a multitude of conflicting demands and interests."

Based on Rumelt's work, a good economic development strategy should look like a kernel containing a diagnosis, guiding policy, and coherent actions.  The diagnosis defines the problem or challenge, "linking facts into patterns and suggesting more attention be paid to some issues and less to others."  It represents a choice between competing theories and allows one to determine how the parts of the strategy align.

The guiding policy lays out the approach or method chosen to "cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis."  It "channels action in certain directions without defining exactly what shall be done."

The coherent actions are the coordinated steps chosen to implement the guiding policy. "To have punch, actions should coordinate and build upon one another, focusing organizational energy." 

Making hard choices is a central theme running through Rumelt's work.  Choosing is hard because the resources needed to address competing needs are scarce. "To have a strategy, rather than vague aspirations, is to choose one path and eschew others. There is difficult psychological, political, and organizational work in saying 'no' to the whole worlds of hopes, dreams, and aspirations."

Here's a brief video of Rumelt explaining the essence of strategy.

Hartford's Preschooler Obesity Rate Alarming

The UConn Center for Public Health and Health Policy (CPHHP) recently reported that 20% of Hartford preschoolers are obese and 17% are overweight. "The prevalence of overweight and obesity was twice as high as [federal] guidelines for age and gender," the report said.

The findings were the result of a study involving 1,120 Hartford preschoolers at 35 randomly selected child-care sites across the city. The results also indicated that:
  • Boys were as likely to be overweight as girls;
  • Latino children were significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than African-American children; and
  • Four- to five-year olds were significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than younger children.
According to the Hartford Courant, Ann Ferris, director of CPHHP, attributes the high obesity rate, at least in part, to poverty. Highly processed foods are less expensive than more nutritious alternatives and children in unsafe neighborhoods are less likely to play outside.

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra characterized the findings as "extremely alarming."

On a more positive note, Ferris and city officials noted that the Hartford's high preschool enrollment rate (73%) may make a system-wide intervention a plausible option.

December 20, 2012

Court Grants Preliminary Injunction Against DSS for Its Failure To Process SNAP Applications On Time

In another blow to an agency that has been the object of considerable scrutiny for the way it runs its programs, a U.S. District Court judge granted a preliminary injunction against the Department of Social Services (DSS) for its "ongoing, persistent systemic failure" to process Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, a/k/a Food Stamps) applications in a timely manner. SNAP is a federal program that DSS administers.

By law, DSS has 30 days to grant most requests for SNAP, but it must process applications sooner in an emergency. While the judge acknowledged that the department has faced a burgeoning caseload since the recent economic downturn began (over 210,000 households were receiving benefits in November), DSS reduced its staffing by 19% between 2002 and 2009, and by another 8% in September and October 2011.

The judge cited figures in the complaint, including that (1) in November 2011, 40% of SNAP applications were pending and (2) between January 2010 and February 2012, at least 20% of applications were acted upon a month late.

The next step is a hearing to determine the appropriate injunctive relief and to define who will be included in the plaintiff class, according to Greater Hartford Legal Aid's litigation director.

Limited Dispute Resolution Options for Checking Account Holders

According to a recent Pew Charitable Trusts report, 90% of Americans have checking accounts, but "often are unaware of the terms of their checking account agreements." The report revealed the prevalence of dispute resolution clauses in such agreements.

Researchers examined checking account agreements from 85 banks and seven credit unions. They found that larger financial institutions were more likely to require checking account holders to agree to mandatory binding arbitration in the event of a dispute. The report defines such arbitration as "a private dispute resolution in which a third-party decision maker resolves disputes between opposing parties…the arbitration decision is binding with narrow opportunity to appeal." Out of the 50 largest financial institutions examined, 56% included mandatory arbitration clauses in their checking account agreements. Of the next 50 largest institutions, only 30% included such clauses.

The researchers also surveyed 603 consumers about their attitudes towards mandatory binding arbitration clauses. Approximately 90% of the consumers expressed concern about the mandatory binding arbitration process and more than two-thirds felt that, in the event of a dispute, they should be able to choose between arbitration and taking the matter to court.

December 19, 2012

Hot Report: DEEP Comprehensive Energy Strategy

OLR Report 2012-R-0484 summarizes the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's draft 2012 Comprehensive Energy Strategy, which presents a series of policy proposals to expand energy choices, lower utility bills, improve environmental conditions, and create clean energy jobs. It focuses on five, sometimes overlapping, energy strategy sectors: natural gas, energy efficiency, electricity, industry, and transportation. Although the strategy contains significant research findings, this report focuses mainly on the recommendations proposed as a result of those findings within each sector.

In discussing the natural gas sector, the strategy concludes that natural gas is a cheaper, cleaner, and more reliable fuel for heating, power generation, and possibly transportation. It recommends a variety of proposals intended to encourage (1) people to convert their homes and businesses to natural gas and (2) gas utilities to expand their infrastructure.

For energy efficiency, which the strategy identifies as the most cost effective way to reduce energy bills, the strategy recommends improving funding for efficiency programs and expanding the programs to include more potential customers. The recommendations for the electricity sector similarly stress the importance of efficiency measures, but also propose measures to reduce electricity use, promote and expand renewable energy systems, and increase system reliability. Recommendations for the industry sector generally focus on adapting the gas, efficiency, and electricity proposals to the specifics of industrial needs, but also include suggestions to encourage water conservation and create an Advanced Energy Innovation Hub.

The strategy's recommendations for the transportation sector focus on reducing the amount of gasoline and diesel fuel consumed in the state while encouraging the availability of a diverse refueling infrastructure.

For more information, read the full report.

The Department of Consumer Protection's (DCP) Holiday Shopping Tips

DCP offers several tips for consumers to consider before completing their holiday shopping, including (1) carefully reading sale flyers, (2) shopping around, (3) asking about sale adjustments, (4) knowing store refund and return policies, and (5) comparing online and store prices.

DCP also advises consumers to not buy expensive service agreements or extended warranties, because research shows that products seldom break within the extended-warranty period, and when they do break, repairs often cost about the same as the warranty.

Technology Use by Jurors Presents New Challenges to Courts

Judges traditionally instruct jurors to listen to the evidence and arguments at trial and not use outside sources to conduct their own research.  They also tell jurors not to talk about the case with others during the trial.  The widespread use of devices that provide easy access to Internet research and social media sites present new challenges to the court system.

A new pilot study of 15 trials by the National Center for State Courts looks at jurors' use of technology.  Among other things, the study found that:
  1. most participating judges admonished prospective jurors not to use the Internet for research or communications during the jury selection process and when impaneling the jury;
  3. 86% of prospective jurors said they could refrain from using the Internet during the trial but 14% said they could not, even if instructed by the judge;
  5. despite the judge's instructions, 44% of prospective jurors would have liked to use the Internet to obtain information about legal terms, 26% about the case, 23% about the parties, 20% about the lawyers, 19% about the judge, 18% about witnesses, and 7% about fellow jurors; and
  7. despite the instructions, 8% of prospective jurors said they would like to use the Internet to contact family and friends about the trial and lesser numbers would use it to connect with another juror or a trial participant or tweet, blog, or post information on social networking sites.
While acknowledging that the study used a very small sample and noting the need for further research, the authors recognized some "tentative insights."

  1. Few jurors reported committing misconduct.

  2. A substantial number of jurors could not recall that the judge told them not to use these technologies or thought they could do so for searches.

  3. A sizeable number wanted to use the Internet to obtain trial-related information.

  4. A significant number said they would be unable to refrain from using the Internet during the trial.

December 18, 2012

Home Sharing Making a Comeback as an "Aging in Place" Housing Model for Seniors

According to a recent Senior Housing News article, an increasing number of seniors are looking to share their homes, enabling them to "age in place" and avoid or delay entering long-term care facilities. Each co-housing agreement is different, but generally these contracts outline both financial and chore responsibilities for its habitants. There are currently 65 home sharing programs registered as National Shared Housing Resource Center members; these programs make approximately 3,000-5,000 co-housing matches per year.

Although a formal home sharing model was established in the 1970s, its popularity has experienced dramatic shifts over the years. According to California's Affordable Living for the Aging, renewed interest in home sharing is "motivated by the need to meet surging demand for affordable housing in a time of shrinking subsidies and economic distress."

For more information on other aging in place housing models, see OLR Reports 2012-R-0447 on ECHO Housing for Seniors and 2012-R-0081 on Modular Medical Homes for Seniors.

Court Limits FMLA to Employers with 75 or More In-State Employees

Connecticut’s Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers with 75 or more employees to provide FMLA benefits to their employees. However, it took a recent state Supreme Court decision to determine if those 75 employees needed to be in the state.  In Velez v. Commissioner of Labor, the court upheld the Department of Labor’s interpretation that the act applies only to employers with 75 or more employees in the state, and not in aggregate.  While the court based its decision on a general deference to agency interpretations of statutes and regulations, it also noted that interpreting the act to cover employers with 75 or more employees anywhere in the world could create a “logistical nightmare” for employers with one in-state employee and 74 employees spread around the world, and for the labor commissioner, who would have to conduct investigations into the employment records of employers far outside her jurisdiction.

December 17, 2012

Know Before You Enroll

In 2008, Congress passed the Post-9/11 GI bill (Veterans Educational Assistance Act, Title V of P.L. 110-252) to increase veterans' opportunity to return to college. But some colleges are targeting veterans to gain GI bill benefits while providing expensive and substandard education. A new website provides veterans with college selection tips and information to make informed decisions about colleges.

Hot Report: Summary of State Gun Laws

OLR Report 2007-R-0369 summary of Connecticut gun laws.

The Connecticut Constitution (Article First, § 15) gives every citizen the right to bear arms in defense of himself and the state. But state law regulates firearm sales, use, and possession.
For regulatory purposes, the law classifies “firearms” into four groups: handguns (pistols and revolvers), long guns (rifles and shotguns), assault weapons, and machine guns. The degree of regulation depends on the type of firearm and, in some cases, the type of transaction (i.e., dealer sales as opposed to secondary or nondealer sales).

With minor exceptions, (1) anyone buying or otherwise acquiring a handgun in Connecticut, whether from a licensed gun dealer or an unlicensed person, must have an eligibility certificate or a permit to sell or carry handguns, and (2) anyone carrying a handgun (except in one's home or business) must have a permit to carry handguns. The credentials allow unlimited gun purchases. No permit or certificate is required to possess handguns in one's home or business.

Permit and certificate applicants must pass state and national criminal history record checks and meet other criteria in law, including, in the case of a carry permit, being deemed suitable to get a permit. Ineligible applicants include convicted felons, illegal aliens, and anyone (1) under age 21; (2) under a court protective or restraining order for using, attempting, or threatening to use force against someone; or (3) discharged into the community in the preceding 20 years after having been found not guilty of a crime by reason of mental disease or defect.

No permit or certificate is required to buy, possess, or carry long guns. But people cannot possess them, if they (1) were ever convicted of a felony or serious juvenile offense, (2) cannot legally possess firearms under federal law because they have been adjudicated as “mental defectives” or have been committed to a mental institution, or (3) know they are under a firearms seizure or restraining or protective order for using or threatening to use violence against someone else. State law sets no minimum age for possessing long guns.

Assault weapons are illegal. People cannot legally buy them or (with one minor exception) bring them into Connecticut. But people who owned assault weapons before October 1, 1993 and registered them with the Department of Public Safety (DPS) before October 1, 1994 can keep them, and dispose of them, under prescribed circumstances.

Machine guns must be registered with DPS within 24 hours after a person acquires them and annually thereafter.

The law regulates (1) handgun sales and transfers by dealers and nondealers and (2) long gun sales and transfers by dealers. It does not regulate secondary sales or transfers of long guns (i.e, nondealer transactions) except to a limited extent at gun shows. Among other things, the law prohibits regulated persons from selling or transferring a covered firearm unless they get a firearm transfer authorization number from DPS, which must conduct a national instant criminal history record check on the buyer to determine if he or she can legally possess firearms.

The law, with exceptions, prohibits carrying (1) firearms on school property, (2) firearms on Connecticut General Assembly property, (3) loaded handguns in a vehicle, and (4) handguns where barred by law or a property owner.

The law imposes criminal penalties on people who (1) store loaded firearms in a way that gives a minor under age 16 unauthorized access to them and (2) transfer handguns to minors under age 21, except as authorized at firing or shooting ranges.

Under limited circumstances and following specified procedures, law enforcement officials may get warrants and seize firearms from anyone posing an imminent risk of harming himself or someone else and a court may order the firearms held for up to one year.

For more information, read the full report.

December 14, 2012

Should Mandatory Evacuations be Mandatory?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, questions have arisen about whether states should coerce residents into leaving their homes during mandatory evacuations. Across the country, states have tried (1) stern warnings about the dangers of staying, (2) moral appeals of not endangering would-be rescuers, and (3) enacting laws to punish residents who fail to obey evacuation orders.

According to a recent Hartford Courant article, Governor Malloy and several town leaders stated that a punitive law was needed.  But many across the nation feel that it would be in the resident's best interests to heed the evacuation orders.

Paying for Parking Decreases Solo Driving

Research conducted by a UCLA urban planning professor has found that free parking contributes to the high percentage of workers driving solo. As reported in the San Francisco Gate, U.S. Census data from 2009 to 2011 show that about 73% of Californians drove to work alone. The professor, Donald Shoup, explained that most employees who drive to work have free parking and free parking is an invitation to drive solo to work.

But the article explains that California has a state law that requires employers to offer employees cash instead of a parking space. It explains that this "cash-out" program allows workers to obtain cash for their subsidized parking spots and walk, bike, carpool, or take public transport instead, resulting in fewer cars on the road. But the program is not well known. Professor Shoup explains in the article that by offering the parking cash-out program, it attaches an opportunity cost to parking. By choosing to drive and park, a worker loses the opportunity to obtain cash.

One barrier cited in the article to increasing the use of driving alternatives is the time that it takes to get to work when not driving. According to the article, workers who do not drive to work alone tend to have longer commutes.

December 13, 2012

Medicare, Fraud: Providers Most Commonly Caught

In October 2012, the General Accountability Office (GAO ) reported to Congress on its study of the most common sources of fraudulent activities (both criminal and civil) among Medicare program participants.  According to the GAO, medical facilities such as medical centers, clinics, and practices, and durable medical equipment suppliers were the most frequent subjects of criminal fraud cases in 2010.  More than a quarter of the criminal prosecutions involved health centers; durable medical suppliers made up another 16%.  These groups were the subjects in 20% and 18% of the civil actions, respectively.  A very small percentage of fraud cases were brought against individual Medicare recipients.

Common health care fraud schemes include providers or suppliers (1) billing for services or supplies not provided or not medically necessary, (2) purposely billing for a higher level of service than that provided, (3) misreporting data to increase payments, (4) paying kickbacks to providers for referring beneficiaries for specific services or to certain entities, or (5) stealing providers' or beneficiaries' identities. 

Hot Report: Health Insurance Options for Small Employers, Including Self-Employed Individuals

OLR Report 2012-R-0522 explains what group health insurance options exist for small employers, including self-employed individuals. You also asked if Connecticut will open an online marketplace (called an “exchange”) where small employers can shop for health insurance pursuant to the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
In Connecticut, a small employer is a business that employs no more than 50 employees and includes a self-employed individual. A small employer wanting to purchase health insurance for its employees has several options, including:
  1. purchasing a commercial insurance policy underwritten by a licensed insurer or health maintenance organization (HMO);
  2. obtaining coverage under a plan arranged by the state comptroller, called the Municipal Employees Health Insurance Program (MEHIP) for commercial small groups; and
  3. obtaining coverage under a plan issued to an association, such as the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) Health Connections program.
The federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148) became law in March 2010. It requires most Americans to have insurance beginning in January 1, 2014 or pay a penalty. It also requires states to create an online marketplace, called an “exchange,” where individuals and small employers can shop for health insurance.
Public Act 11-53 established the Connecticut Health Insurance Exchange (HIX) as a quasi-public agency overseen by a 14-member board of directors. The board is planning and implementing Connecticut's exchange. It plans to begin marketing health insurance policies in October 2013 for coverage beginning January 1, 2014.
For more information on the HIX and to follow its development, see
For more information, read the full report.

State Not Bound by Statute of Limitations

The state Supreme Court recently ruled that the state is not restricted by statutes of limitations or repose when bringing lawsuits (State v. Lombardo Brothers Mason Contractors, et al.). 

In the case, the state filed a lawsuit 12 years after construction of the UConn law library, alleging construction defects.  In 2009, a trial court ruled that the statute of limitations had run out.  But in November, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court, holding that the state is protected by the common law doctrine of "nullum tempus occurrit regi" (time does not run against the king.)  

An analysis of the case in the Connecticut Law Tribune describes the implications of the decision for public works contractors, who may have to defend against lawsuits years after a project is completed. Some construction attorneys predict that the General Assembly may consider legislation addressing the ruling.  In the opinion, the Court noted that the decision on whether to abrogate the doctrine of nullum tempus is one the legislature should make, not the Court.

In the Law Tribune article, Attorney General George Jepsen noted that it is rare for the state to wait so long to sue.  He noted that "we act in the broad public interest. In this particular instance, until they ripped the building apart, years after the faulty construction, we didn't know how poorly executed the construction was."

The full text of the opinion is available on the Judicial Branch website.

December 12, 2012

Study Finds Small Business Workers Losing Coverage

The Commonwealth Fund issued a report on November 1, 2012 that shows the share of U.S. workers in small businesses (those with fewer than 50 employees) who were offered, eligible for, and covered by employer-sponsored health insurance has declined over the past decade.  From 2001 to 2011, the share of people under age 65 covered by employer plans fell from 68 to 57%.  Most of the erosion occurred among small firms.  One in three (33%) of workers in small firms had health insurance through their employer in 2010, compared to more than half (55%) of workers in midsize firms (50 to 99 employees) and more than one in seven (71%) workers in large firms (100 or more employees).  The report also points out that small businesses pay more--nearly 18% more--for the same benefits than do large firms.

Town-by-Town Voter Turnout Statistics

Curious to know what voter turnout was in your town this past election? The secretary ofthe state recently released voter turnout statistics for each of Connecticut's 169 municipalities. Statewide, turnout was 73.77%, a decrease from 2008's turnout of 78.14%. Still, Connecticut's 2012 turnout ranked seventh nationally, according to the secretary of the state, and every municipality in the state had turnout of at least 50%.

Bridgewater led the way with 94.75% turnout and was the only municipality to exceed 90%. Just missing the 90% mark were Middletown (89.86%) and Ridgefield (89.42%). Twelve municipalities exceeded 85% turnout.

Hot Report: Interlocal Collaboration and Regionalism Grants

OLR Report 2012-R-0491 describes the laws authorizing (1) towns to collaborate on different activities and (2) state grants or other financial incentives for towns that do so. This report updates OLR report 2011-R-0364.

Many statutes allow towns to collaborate on different activities. Some give them broad authority to (1) collaborate on any activity they can perform separately, (2) jointly finance projects and activities, or (3) share tax revenue. Other statutes specify the activity and how towns may collaborate to undertake it. This includes allowing towns to establish a regional entity to perform a specific municipal function (e.g., health, education, or waste management) and join together to implement a regional property revaluation program or purchase employee health insurance.

The law authorizes various state grant programs and subsidies to incentivize towns to join together to deliver a service, purchase capital equipment, or implement a capital project. The Regional Performance Incentive Grant Program provides grants to towns and regional entities for jointly performing a service they have been performing separately. It has been used to fund a variety of regional initiatives, including information technology, public safety, and public works-related projects.

There are also a number of grants and subsidies for towns that collaborate to provide specific public services. For example, the State Department of Education (SDE) administers a competitive grant program for school districts and regional education service centers (RESCs) that establish interdistrict cooperative programs. In addition, the Office of State-Wide Emergency Telecommunications (OSET) offers financial incentives to encourage towns to consolidate their 9-1-1 operations.

Towns that join together to purchase capital equipment may qualify for the Intertown Capital Equipment Purchase Incentive Program, which pays up to 50% or $250,000 of the cost of buying or leasing a vehicle or other equipment. Groups of towns collaborating on a capital project are also eligible for Small Town Economic Assistance Program (STEAP) grants.

For more information, read the full report.

December 11, 2012

A "Back to the Future" Solution for a "Back to the Future" Need

Years ago, people lived in multifamily houses in dense urban neighborhoods and used sidewalks and streetcars to go to back and forth to work places, factories, offices, stores, schools, churches, etc. But these urban neighborhoods eventually gave way to new single-family homes in rapidly expanding suburbs where new roads and highways made it easy for people to drive to new shopping centers, movie theaters, and workplaces in more remote places.  Well, housing researchers suggest that urban-style "back to the future" is back in vogue, but the supply of such housing is limited, writes Atlantic's Christopher Leinberger in 2010.

Stan Humphries, the chief economist for Zillow, an online housing research firm, saw that metropolitan area declines in housing values masked local differences when he plotted these trends on satellite maps. Looking at the Washington DC metro area, Humphries saw that "in densely built inner suburbs like Arlington, Virginia, and in the walkable urban neighborhoods in the District of Columbia, prices typically dropped about 20%. Housing on the suburban fringe, on the other hand, lost about half its value."

Humphries' analysis suggests a pent-up demand for walkable, urban-style housing. But creating such housing requires a big investment in new bus and rail systems. Who's going to pay for this very costly infrastructure? In the old days, "real estate developers, sometimes aided by electric utilities, not only built the [rail] system but paid rent to cities for the rights-of-way," Christopher Leinberger wrote.

Are developers going to foot the bill for rail systems as they did in the old days? Leinberger doesn't really say, but Connecticut, on a project-by-project basis, has allowed developers to fund housing infrastructure by creating special taxing districts authorized to issue government bonds backed by future property taxes. Leinberger thinks residents in existing neighborhoods might be willing to pay extra property taxes for the infrastructure because it would boost property values.

Text Messages Help Smokers Quit

According to a recent NPR article, a review of studies published by the Cochrane Collaboration found that smokers who receive continuous, supportive text messages are more likely to quit smoking than those who do not receive them or who receive them less frequently. The review, conducted by Dr. Robyn Whittaker at the University of Auckland in New Zealand analyzed five studies with over 9,000 subjects trying to quit smoking. Smokers in the intervention groups received several text messages each day containing either motivational messages or quitting advice. Those in the control groups received less frequent text messages or were given information online or by phone.

Whittaker estimated that the text messages increased the chance of smokers quitting within six months from 4% to 5% in control groups and from 6% to 10% in the intervention groups. Based on these findings, some state and local health departments are exploring new online texting systems to support smokers trying to quit.

December 10, 2012

Decorate with Care: No Invasive Species

When decorating for the holidays, be sure to avoid using invasive species.  The Connecticut Department of Energy andEnvironmental Protection reminds state residents that the attractive Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), formerly used in wreath making and other holiday decorations, is an invasive species.  A 2004 state law prohibits selling or moving invasive species.  People who find Oriental bittersweet for sale in Connecticut are asked to contact Connecticut's Invasive Plant Coordinator, Logan Senack, at 860-208-3900.

Oriental bittersweet fruits are red with a yellow outer covering. Although very colorful, this plant is highly invasive and should not be used in holiday decorations. Photo by Les Mehrhoff, IPANE.

Department of Revenue Services Says Medical Marijuana is Taxable

According to recently issued guidance from DRS, sales of marijuana by licensed dispensaries will be subject to Connecticut's 6.35% sales and use tax. 
Special Notice 2012(5) also points out that licensed marijuana producers may be able to claim the state sales tax exemption for farmers (CGS § 12-412 (63)).  This exemption allows entities engaged in agricultural production as a trade or business to be exempt from the sales and use tax for purchases of tangible personal property used exclusively for agricultural production.
DRS also notes that qualifying patients, physicians, primary caregivers, producers, and dispensaries will be considered in lawful possession of marijuana and therefore not be subject to state's excise tax on illegal sales of marijuana.

December 7, 2012

Can Oil Dealers Convert Too?

With the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection's recently issued draft energy strategy calling for a significant effort to encourage natural gas use instead of oil for home heating, a recent article on highlights a company that has lasted for 86 years by adapting to the energy trends of its times.  According to the article, Daniels Energy in Portland was founded in 1926 delivering firewood and coal for home heating.  Within a few years, the company began delivering oil too, and over the decades added heating system conversions, air conditioners, propane delivery, solar hot water systems, and even retail electricity sales to the services it offers. 

While oil dealers maintain that potentially losing half of their customers to natural gas would be devastating for the industry and its employees, companies like Daniels are also looking at the business opportunities that could arise from increased installation and servicing of natural gas equipment.  However, company president David Daniels adds that even though his company will be "fine" it won't be able to maintain the same number of employees it currently has.

Future-Proofing Our Institutions (and the State's Economy)

"Today our institutions are up against new challenges: a rapidly accelerating pace of change, hyper-competition, the commoditization of knowledge, and ever-escalating demands for social accountability," says Gary Hamel, author of What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation (2012). However, our institutions aren't wired for change. Instead they're wired to be disciplined and efficient, something that comes from "routinizing the non-routine." Adapting to change means organizations must give up outdated routines and "future-proof" themselves for change.

How do you future-proof your organization? According to Hamel:

1.   Anticipate change by resisting the tendency to avoid or ignore disconcerting developments; paying attention to new technologies, unconventional competitors, and unserved customers; and act out how changes will affect you.

2.   Solicit options from employees, vendors, and customers and learn how to experiment cheaply by using storyboards, simulations, role-playing scenarios, and cheap product or service mock-ups (i.e., rapid prototyping).

3.   Become flexible by subdividing large, complex organizational units into smaller differentiated ones; allowing people proposing new products and services to compete for resources with those invested in established ones; and multiply the funding sources for developing new products and services.

4.   Avoid (a) investments that preclude future mid-course corrections, (b) inflexible product designs and service models; and (c) investing too much in one product or market.

5.   Program your organizational DNA for resilience by challenging your employees to come up with new ideas, studying how other entities change and adapt, and using the web to foster collaboration.

Here are more of Hamel's ideas:

December 6, 2012

New Teacher Evaluation Systems Bad for Students?

Nationally, there is much debate about whether using student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers is fair to teachers, given that those with more challenging students run the risk of being labeled as ineffective no matter how well they teach. Now, some are questioning whether this type of teacher evaluation system is also bad for students.

The Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet blog discusses the shortcomings of evaluating teachers using student test scores. It cites a recent American Institute for Research report on the New York State teacher evaluation model that found when the percentage of a classroom's students with disabilities or in poverty increases, the average teacher evaluation score decreases.

Add to this a new survey of 500 New York principals regarding the “student growth score” evaluation model. Seventy-three percent of principals surveyed felt that the “ineffective” label assigned to some of their teachers was either a "not very accurate" or an "inaccurate" reflection of that teacher based on their observations and the performance of that teacher’s students.

In the survey, some principals stated that next year they would reassign certain teachers to less needy students so they could protect excellent teachers from an ineffective rating. Others expressed concerns that excellent teachers would choose to leave for schools or districts with less needy students to avoid the risk of an ineffective label. This suggests that new teacher evaluation systems may be discouraging teachers from taking the most challenging assignments and thus decreasing the chances that needy students will get the best possible teachers.

Move Over Mom, Dad's Buying The Barbies This Year

The New York Times is reporting Mattel and other toymakers are marketing girls' toys to fathers, many of whom are doing the holiday shopping these days. In fact, for the first time in Barbie's 50-year history, Mattel has introduced a Barbie construction set.

This new marketing scheme reflects not only that dads are shopping as much as if not more than moms, but that parents want their girls to develop their spatial skills, which would ultimately help them compete with boys for careers in math, science, engineering, and technology jobs.

But have no fear, traditionalists. The sets made by Megablocks are pink, and the construction choices include fashion boutiques, mansions, and ice cream carts.

December 5, 2012

Payment Fraud

This past year, the Federal Reserve banks in Boston, Dallas, Minneapolis, and Richmond and the Independent Community Bankers of America surveyed financial institutions and others about payment fraud and their methods of combatting it.

Of those responding, 93% reported financial losses due to fraud but 69% estimated their losses at less than 0.3% of revenue.  About 85% of respondents stated that their fraud losses increased or stayed the same in 2012 as compared to 2011. Financial institutions reported counterfeit or stolen card use at the point of sale or online as the most common types of fraud involving their customers' accounts.

For most payment types, spending on fraud prevention exceeded actual losses except for (1) debit signature payments and (2) mobile payments.  The report points out that spending on fraud prevention in these two areas could reduce losses. When asked about 15 different internal controls and procedures to combat fraud, the report found that 12 were in widespread use, adopted by over 80% of financial institutions.

Feds Pull Plug on Telemarketer Scammers

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) temporarily stopped five Arizona- and Florida-based companies from making robocalls that allegedly defrauded consumers of hundreds of thousands of dollars by promising to reduce the consumers' credit card interest rates for fees ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

But, the companies did "little, if anything, to fulfill their promises," the FTC said.

Federal courts have granted the FTC's request to temporarily block the operations, which allegedly made millions of illegal pre-recorded calls from "Rachel," or "Cardholder Services."

"At the FTC, Rachel from Cardholder Services is public enemy number one," FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said. He said his agency is "cracking down on illegal robocalls by bringing law enforcement actions and pursuing technical solutions to the problem."

December 4, 2012

Hot Report: Right-to-Die Laws

OLR Report 2012-R-0477 summarizes laws or legislation in other states concerning the right to die as well as Connecticut bills on this topic.

Two states, Oregon and Washington, currently have statutes providing a procedure for a terminally ill patient to request medication to end his or her life. These laws are sometimes referred to as “death with dignity” or “physician-assisted suicide” laws.

Massachusetts voters considered a ballot initiative this year to enact a law allowing state-licensed physicians to prescribe medication for terminally ill patients, under prescribed procedures, to end the person's life. Voters rejected the initiative by a narrow margin, 51% to 49%.

While Montana does not have an assisted suicide statute, the state's Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that doctors have a defense to prosecution for assisting a suicide with the person's consent. Under Montana law, a victim's consent to conduct is a defense to prosecution. But consent is ineffective when it is against public policy to permit the conduct or the resulting harm. The court ruled that a physician's aid to a terminally ill, mentally competent adult is not against public policy and thus a person's consent can be a defense to prosecution (Baxter v. Montana, 354 Mont. 234 (2009)).

Connecticut last considered a right to die bill in 2009. The Judiciary Committee bill (SB 1138) was similar to the Oregon and Washington laws. The committee voted to box the bill. In recent years, similar bills were introduced in a handful of other states (such as Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania).

For more information, read the full report. 

Housing Market Shows Signs of Recovery, Despite a 10-Year Low Median Price

The Warren Group recently released Q3 data indicating that the number of home sales in Connecticut has increased every month in 2012.  The median sale price, on the other hand, is the lowest it's been in 10 years.  Data on condo sales and prices shows a similar trend.

But, according to this press release, the fact that prices are at a low is not necessarily a bad sign.  The Warren Group CEO, Timothy Warren, stated, “the drop in prices is concerning, but it’s typical to see sales volume increase before prices do in a recovery period.”  Warren remarked that the increases in year-to-date home sales by 13.1% and condo sales by 7.2% are strong signs that the housing market is recovering.

December 3, 2012

Hot Report: DEEP Comprehensive Energy Strategy

OLR Report 2012-R-0484 summarizes the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's draft 2012 Comprehensive Energy Strategy.

The draft 2012 Comprehensive Energy Strategy issued by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) in October 2012 presents a series of policy proposals intended to expand energy choices, lower utility bills, improve environmental conditions, and create clean energy jobs. It focuses on five, sometimes overlapping, energy strategy sectors: natural gas, energy efficiency, electricity, industry, and transportation. Although the strategy contains significant research findings, this report focuses mainly on the recommendations proposed as a result of those findings within each sector.

In discussing the natural gas sector, the strategy concludes that natural gas is a cheaper, cleaner, and more reliable fuel for heating, power generation, and possibly transportation. It recommends a variety of proposals intended to encourage (1) people to convert their homes and businesses to natural gas and (2) gas utilities to expand their infrastructure.

For energy efficiency, which the strategy identifies as the most cost effective way to reduce energy bills, the strategy recommends improving funding for efficiency programs and expanding the programs to include more potential customers. The recommendations for the electricity sector similarly stress the importance of efficiency measures, but also propose measures to reduce electricity use, promote and expand renewable energy systems, and increase system reliability. Recommendations for the industry sector generally focus on adapting the gas, efficiency, and electricity proposals to the specifics of industrial needs, but also include suggestions to encourage water conservation and create an Advanced Energy Innovation Hub.

The strategy's recommendations for the transportation sector focus on reducing the amount of gasoline and diesel fuel consumed in the state while encouraging the availability of a diverse refueling infrastructure.

For more information, read the full report.

New Federal Law Makes It Easier for Veterans to Get Commercial Drivers' Licenses

President Obama last month signed into the law the Military Commercial Drivers' License (CDL) Act of 2012, making it easier for veterans to obtain CDLs. A driver needs a CDL to operate a large truck or bus.

Under thel aw, service men and women will be able to obtain CDLs in the state where they are stationed, regardless of their permanent residence. Previously, states could not issue CDLs to a person who was not a permanent resident.

Next Year's Medicare Program Costs Announced

Federal Medicare officials just announced increases in Medicare Part B (outpatient services) premiums and deductibles for 2013.  The monthly premiums will go up 5%, from $99.90 to $104.30. This marks the first time they have broken into the triple digits, but is less than the 9% increase the program's trustees predicted earlier this year.  Nevertheless, advocates for the elderly point out that premiums have risen 130% since 2000 -- nearly as much as gasoline prices.

For less-wealthy recipients, the changes will be felt as smaller-than-expected Social Security increases. The Social Security COLA next year is 1.7 %. After Part B premiums are deducted, seniors receiving a $1,000 monthly benefit will see a net increase of $12, or 1.2 %; the net increase for those receiving $2,000 will be $29, or 1.45%.

High-income seniors (those with incomes exceeding $85,000 for single filers and $170,000 for joint filers), who already pay surcharges on top of the standard premium, will pay the 5% increase plus surcharges that rise with income.  Their Part B increases will range from $42 to $230.90.