CT Democrats make election-year pitch to older voters

Democratic legislators line up Friday to back an agenda for 2014 geared to older voters.

CT Mirror

Democratic legislators line up Friday to back an agenda for 2014 geared to older voters.

The General Assembly’s election-year session doesn’t begin until next week, but one thing already is clear: Legislators and the governor are ardently courting older voters, one of largest and most reliable elements of the electorate.

Democratic leaders Friday outlined a low-cost, high-profile legislative agenda of consumer protections and other items backed by AARP, the over-50 advocacy group that says polling shows its members comprise 40 percent of voter turnout in Connecticut.

In a year of tight money, the agenda is packed with affordable initiatives certain to show up in campaign mailers next fall, including tighter rules on door-to-door and phone solicitations by energy retailers, some of whom use aggressive bait-and-switch appeals.

Nearly two dozen lawmakers crowded around Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. of Brooklyn and House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden as the top leaders of the Assembly presented their agenda with two AARP members.

“We need to be on the side of our constituents and the families of Connecticut when it comes to potential abuses that take money out of their pockets or create obstacles for them to move forward,” Williams said.

“They deserve the protection we can afford them, especially in their older years,” Sharkey said.

Legislators say they intend to require that every electric bill include the “standard offer,” the rate charged by the state’s two major utilities, Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating, for easy comparison to the rate charged by retailers.

Bills also would have to show rate increases and dates of automatic renewals, protections against variable rates that can catch even usually savvy consumers by surprise, legislators said.

Byron Peterson, an AARP volunteer, said he saved 35 percent on his electric bill switching from United Illuminating to a retailer, but he was unaware that he had agreed to a variable rate that jumped without warning.

Before he caught on, Peterson said, he had spent far more than if he had stayed with UI and the standard offer.

"I believe I am a savvy consumer," he said. "I know I am a savvy consumer."

All door-to-door solicitations would have to be made in writing, consumers would have a right to cancel contracts within 30 days without penalty, and the do-not-call law would be expanded to cover text messages.

The legislators also proposed greater privacy protections targeting prescription discount programs that collect and sell consumer information, including data about health conditions.

They promised modest additional funding for “aging in place,” services that help keep older people in their homes. They also pledge support of an AARP-backed employment law endorsed last week by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy: a ban on help-wanted ads that discriminate against the jobless.

AARP said such ads are problem to long-term unemployed of all ages, but they especially hurt older workers.

AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, has emerged as an influential consumer lobby in Hartford, especially on issues relating to the market created in recent years for energy retailers.

Last year, the group helped block Malloy’s plan to raise at least $80 million by selling retailers the rights to serve standard-offer customers, an idea opposed by AARP in a months-long, grass-roots lobbying campaign.

Attorney General George Jepsen, a Democrat and ally of Malloy's, eventually weighed in on AARP's side, telling legislators in a letter that the standard offer gives consumers an important benchmark for judging the rates promised by competitive retailers.

AARP has 603,000 members in fast- graying Connecticut, whose residents are seventh oldest in the U.S. based on median age. The state has nearly 500,000 residents age 65 or older.

Julia Evans Starr, the executive director of Connecticut's Legislative Commission on Aging, said the agenda announced Friday is badly needed.

"Indeed, our state is rapidly aging, and thoughtful preparation by state and municipal leaders is warranted in a myriad of areas -- including transportation, housing and workforce development -- to create communities conducive to aging in place," she said.

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