Monthly Archives: May 2013

Will energy efficiency investment fall victim to Canadian hydropower?

Energy policymaking in Connecticut has lately been consumed by the struggle over large-scale hydropower, and that is unfortunate, because the energy policy we actually need in Connecticut has little to do with remote Canadian dams and a lot to do with a low-cost, consumer-friendly energy resource much closer to home – energy efficiency. Continue Reading →

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Legislators push transparency at state Education Department

To craft and implement controversial education reforms, the state Education Department has routinely turned to an organization not bound by public disclosure or competitive bidding requirements to do its work — an approach state legislators are poised to change.”There were some very alarming issues,” said Sen. Andrea Stillman, the co-chairman of the Education Committee.After passage Thursday night by the Senate, the bill now is before the state House of Representatives, where the House chairman is “quite optimistic” that it will be voted on before the legislative session adjourns at midnight Wednesday.”We are well aware there’s a need for some action in this area,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, the House chair of the committee.State auditors in February reported that they “continue to be concerned” with the transparency of the Education Department over its use of the State Education Resource Center [SERC] to craft controversial changes to teacher tenure, evaluation and collective bargaining systems on behalf of the administration. The education resource center also handled the contract of a new leader of Windham Public Schools after the state takeover.The process used “greatly undermines the ability of [the agency] to be transparent and accountable to the people of Connecticut,” auditors John Geragosian and Robert Ward wrote.The auditors’ report followed a series of articles in the Connecticut Post that disclosed these non-public, no-bid contracts.”It became clear there are lots of different contracts. It’s not always clear … who is holding the contractors responsible, or whether there was a full fair competitive bidding process. We just want to make sure basic, good government processes get embedded in SERC moving forward,” Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said during an interview.The bill approved by the Senate requires the resource center that the education department ran its contracts through to be subject to public disclosure laws and clean-contract laws.This lack of disclosure has also attracted the attention of open-government groups and teachers’ unions. Continue Reading →

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Mexicans: State’s fastest-growing Latino group

This story is posted on the website of Mirror partner CtLatinoNews.comJesse Suarez was 16 years old when when he left Mexico to work in California’s vegetable fields. Soon after moving to the United States, he was approached by a man from Argentina who offered him a job in Connecticut. Little did he know that the small New England state would have so much to offer him, namely, a future.“I had never heard of Connecticut,” Suarez admitted. “I had no idea where it was.”Despite not being acquainted with the geography of the United States, Suarez jumped at the offer and made the long journey across the country to pursue steady work and stability. Once he arrived, he began working his way up through the ranks of a Southington-based furniture company as a maintenance man.His boss sent him to other stores around the country, training him on how to maintain their showrooms. After working for various distributors in the state, he bought Leon’s Liquors in New Britain in 2002. Continue Reading →

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Blame game begins in Metro-North crash

Washington –- The National Transportation Safety Board is months away from a final determination on what caused the Metro-North crash earlier this month that injured dozens of commuters, some of them severely.The NTSB is focusing on a section of the track at the derailment site that had been held together by joint bars — steel bars, also called fishplates, that are fastened with bolts to hold two sections of track together. An inspection by Metro-North employees of that section of track in April resulted in the replacement of a broken joint bar.The question now is who, if anyone, is to blame for the derailment? Millions of dollars in lawsuits may hinge on the answer.Elizabeth Sorensen, the passenger who was perhaps the most injured in the crash, has filed a lawsuit against Metro-North, blaming the railroad company of negligence.Hers is the first legal action stemming from the crash, but it won’t be the last.Other passengers and injured railroad workers have also retained lawyers.Metro-North is under fire. But a spokesman said the company has been barred by the NTSB from commenting on anything to do with the crash.Workers who repaired the track are also under scrutiny.  They belong to the Long Island-based Local 808  of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.Chris Silvera, the secretary-treasurer of Local 808, said there were three workers involved, two who worked directly on the repair of the track and another who came over to assist.“Work was done in what was considered acceptable practices,” he said.But Silvera said those practices are likely to be altered after the NTSB completes its investigation. That could take six months or more.“Corrections are written in blood all too often,” he said. Continue Reading →

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The semantics of Malloy’s no-tax pledge

When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy obtained $1.5 billion in tax hikes two years ago, his administration insisted it was unfair to include $350 million in new hospital taxes in that total.The state was reimbursing hospitals for every dollar they paid out. As long as that happened, the argument went, it was a tax in fiscal notes and legal terms only.Two years later and the governor and his fellow Democrats have negotiated a tentative budget that reduces reimbursement by about $400 million over the next two years.So is it a new tax now?The answer remains “no” from Malloy and Democratic legislative leaders.But for hospitals, Republican legislators and even some rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers, the “no new taxes” message doesn’t hold up.Welcome to the rhetoric of budget politics at the state Capitol.“The bottom line is we will not increase taxes or create any new taxes,” Malloy told reporters Tuesday as he answered questions about the tentative deal struck late last week. Those who argue the budget raises taxes and contains gimmicks, he added, are “trying to score cheap, political points.”The hospitals “are screaming and understandably screaming,” said Rep. Sean Williams of Watertown, ranking House Republican on the tax-writing Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.The state had been collecting $350 million per year from the hospital industry, and then paying it right back through two accounts: one that helps hospitals fund inpatient services to Medicaid clients, and a second that helps cover the cost of treating the uninsured.The whole back-and-forth arrangement was part of a plan to help Connecticut qualify for more federal health care funding, and the administration shared that bounty with hospitals as well.But the governor’s new budget – as well as the tentative deal struck last week – reduces those reimbursements by about $400 million in total over the next two years.When the administration first detailed the $1.51 billion list of tax increases it sought two years ago the hospital tax was left off, because of the full reimbursement.Malloy and his fellow Democrats can’t keep insisting they only raised only $1.5 billion in taxes two years ago, unless they are prepared to count the unreimbursed hospital tax today, Williams added.“By their own logic,” he said,  “it’s a new tax now.”When the administration unveiled its latest budget plan in February, it initially referred to those changes in hospital reimbursements as spending cuts.“The decision to reduce hospital funding was not an easy one,” the governor’s budget introduction states.But after the Connecticut Hospital Association began reminding legislators and reporters that a cut to these reimbursements equaled an effective tax hike — the administration tweaked its message.When Malloy appeared on May 6 on WNPR’s public affairs show “Where We Live,” he responded quickly when host John Dankosky asked about the hospital funding reductions the governor’s own budget staff wrote about in his budget.“Let me stop you right there,” Malloy told Dankosky about four minutes into the program. “There aren’t cuts to hospitals.”The administration insists that while the hospitals lose $400 million in tax reimbursements, they will make it back. But to do so, hospitals will have to treat thousands more poor patients covered through Medicaid.”It is time for people to trim their sails, to find ways to deliver great service at less expense,” the governor said, adding that all hospital-related state spending should be $1.7 billion next fiscal year, just as it is this year. Continue Reading →

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Newtown families to legislators: Stop release of crime-scene photos

The families of those massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School are calling on legislators to amend state law so that photos and audio of the 9-1-1 phone calls from the December incident are not released to the public.“They are offensive and an invasion of my son’s right to dignity,” said Dean Pinto, whose 6-year-old son, Jack, was fatally shot along with 25 other students and educators at the Newtown school.A bill that the legislative leadership has been secretly negotiating with the governor’s office would block future release of crime-scene photos, audio and the names on statements from the children who witnessed the slaughter.“None of us here want to hear gun shots and the screams of our loved ones,” Pinto said.But some legislators, open-government advocates, and newspaper editorial boards have concerns about exempting this traditionally public information from disclosure.“When did somebody in state government decide that secrecy was good public policy?” the Hartford Courant wrote in a recent editorial about the proposal.“This is wrong at every level… It isn’t a good idea, and they damn well know it,” the editorial said.But the families who came to the state Capitol Friday to ask legislators to change the law said many of them have already been harassed and subjected to conspiracy theories by crackpots -– an indignity releasing such graphic information would just exacerbate.“Every family you see behind you has been harassed on multiple occasions,” said Gilles Rousseau, whose daughter, Lauren Rousseau, a substitute at the school, was slain.”She has become the fuel of many crazy people out there. I can only imagine what will happen when [the] Internet is flooded with hundreds of thousands of photos and depict the actual gruesome scene,” he said. Parents also said they don’t want filmmakers like Michael Moore using images of their dead family members to make a political point.”I don’t want my child to be collateral damage,” said Jennifer Hensel, who lost her daughter at Sandy Hook.Moore, an anti-gun advocate who produced a movie about the shootings at Columbine High School, recently wrote in the Huffington Post about the benefit of releasing these photos.“When the American people see what bullets from an assault rifle fired at close range do to a little child’s body, that’s the day the jig will be up for the [National Rifle Association]. It will be the day the debate on gun control will come to an end. There will be nothing left to argue over. It will just be over. Continue Reading →

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Responding to Newtown, House passes children’s mental health bill

The House on Friday unanimously passed a proposal aimed at better coordinating mental health services for young people, a measure described as a response to the massacre at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.Supporters of the bill, which previously passed the Senate unanimously and now heads to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk, said it complements the legislation passed earlier this year in response to the Newtown shootings. That proposal contained several mental health measures, but they focused primarily on adults and young people aged 16 and up.Mental health experts had been hoping that lawmakers would also focus on preventing mental health problems and intervening early, arguing that focusing on very young children could help avoid more difficult problems later. Advocates for mental health and early childhood interventions praised the concepts behind the bill. But some have wondered how effective it can be because it commits no money to expanding mental health resources.It will take years for the goals of the proposal to be realized, said Rep. Whitt Betts, R-Bristol, but ultimately, the aim is to make it easy for parents and schools to know where to turn if they need resources to help children at an early stage.Betts said many people felt that the main issue connected to the Newtown massacre was mental illness.“This, ladies and gentlemen, is our response, our collective answer in trying to address that,” he said.The bill will be one of the significant ones passed this year, predicted Rep. DebraLee Hovey, R-Monroe, whose district includes Newtown.“At the heart of the matter, to get to young children who may have mental health and behavioral health issues, it’s so important because we know that we can change the tide of their lives,” she said.Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, who co-chairs the children’s committee, said the proposal puts a “laser-like focus on prevention,” and seeks to break down barriers that keep various parts of the service system from working together.Urban cited three statistics: About two-thirds of youths in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder. About 1 in 10 young people have mental disorders so severe it impairs their functioning. Continue Reading →

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Lesson learned: state won’t intervene in Bridgeport school fight

One year after the state Supreme Court ruled that the State Board of Education overstepped when it intervened in Bridgeport’s school system, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor has declined to get formally involved in a local dispute.In dismissing a request from the state’s largest teachers’ union to intervene in Connecticut’s largest school district, Pryor wrote to the leader of the Bridgeport Education Association, “First, you must show that you have exhausted your remedies at the local level.”The complaint alleges that the superintendent in Bridgeport, Paul Vallas, is shutting out teachers and parents from taking part in making important decisions by limiting the role the School Governance Councils are playing in helping to make budgetary, hiring and strategic plans for the 21,000-student district. The councils were created by state law three years ago as a way to ensure that parents and teachers play a role in improving schools.Union leadership said Vallas has displayed a “flagrant disregard” of these councils.But when dismissing the complaint, Pryor wrote that state law and regulations are clear that the dispute must be formally brought before the local board of education before the state has jurisdiction.”Because your complaint does not show that you have attempted to resolve the complaint with the Board, I am dismissing it. Notwithstanding that fact, I take seriously the allegations you have raised,” Pryor wrote.Pryor, who worked alongside Vallas in Haiti and Chile as those nations rebuilt school systems after devastating earthquakes, invited the union leader to sit down and talk about the issue with him and Vallas.The leader of the Connecticut Education Association said that the issue is not over.”We are going to take whatever steps are necessary to get this resolved because we think it is extremely important,” said Mark Waxenberg, the executive director of the union. “If this is not taken seriously or welcome [by the local board] then we will be back before the state for it to deal with it.”Waxenberg said the relationship between the teachers and Vallas “at times is very difficult. … It comes down to how much do you believe the teachers should have a voice in the reform initiatives taking place in your district. Continue Reading →

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GOP balks, Dems listen on fate of Independent Party

The Independent Party will survive. Now, attention turns today to whether the same can be said of sweeping campaign finance reforms passed in 2005 as Connecticut watched a former governor go to prison.With Republicans threatening an end-of-session filibuster, Senate Democrats have given up on trying to force a name change in a party that cross-endorsed GOP candidates in 2012. “It was decided yesterday in about five minutes,” Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said Thursday night.As for the rest of the bill, House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said the parties may disagree, but there is nothing as provocative as stripping the conservative-leaning Independent Party of its name.”Let’s put it this way, we can convert from a nuclear battle to a more conventional battle,” Sharkey said.House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, was not so sure. He said the Democrats still are trying to hobble the Independent Party by referring to petitioning parties as “independent.”A draft of campaign-reform legislation that circulated earlier this week included a provision banning  “independent” as a party name, just as “unaffiliated” is banned under existing law as confusing.Republicans erupted.They complained that Independent Party was deemed confusing only after it cross-endorsed Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate and Congress, including Linda McMahon and Andrew Roraback.“It is an arrogant power grab. It is unconstitutional,” Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Wednesday.“It’s incredibly offensive,” Cafero said. His city of Norwalk was once governed by an Independent mayor.It also was really bad timing. Democrats hold majorities of 98-52 in the House and 22-14 in the Senate, but the filibuster is a potent weapon at the end of the annual legislative session.The Democrats ticked off the GOP at the most inopportune moment.Cafero shrugged when asked why the Democrats tried something so inflammatory at a time when the GOP has its greatest ability to influence the General Assembly’s agenda.“Listen, we don’t pick when they call them, and we don’t pick what they call. Continue Reading →

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Ned Lamont: Budget contains even more promises and gimmicks

Our Connecticut state budget has become a biannual fiscal train wreck. Given the depths of the budget crisis Gov. Malloy inherited two years ago, many of us encouraged our tough minded new governor, working with his fellow Democrats in the legislature, when he pledged to present the first honest budget in years. He said it was a GAAP-approved budget that would stabilize our finances with real budget cuts matched with revenue increases. Continue Reading →

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Budget contains even more promises and gimmicks

Our Connecticut state budget has become a biannual fiscal train wreck.

Given the depths of the budget crisis Gov. Malloy inherited two years ago, many of us encouraged our tough minded new governor, working with his fellow Democrats in the legislature, when he pledged to present the first honest budget in years. He said it was a GAAP-approved budget that would stabilize our finances with real budget cuts matched with revenue increases. Continue Reading →

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Gary M. Steck: Full funding for behavioral health should be a priority in Connecticut

Gary M. Steck has been the Chief Executive Officer of Waterbury-based Wellmore Behavioral Health since 1999 and serves as Board Chair of the Connecticut Community Providers Association.  He is a Connecticut licensed psychotherapist.As legislators in Connecticut prepare to vote on the budget for the next two years, there should be little disagreement about the need to shore up our behavioral health services. Numbing tragedies last year in a movie theater in Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School had politicians on both sides of the aisle agreeing it was time to fix our depleted mental health system.Now is the opportune time for our elected officials to put their words into action.Gaps in behavioral health services have widened in recent years because states like Connecticut have slashed more than $4.3 billion from mental health budgets nationwide since 2009. Indeed, and while it appears counter-intuitive, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposed budget cut grant funds for critically needed community based mental health and substance abuse recovery treatment to zero. Most recently the Appropriations Committee acknowledged the importance of this care by voting to restore 75 percent of this funding, yet the remaining 25 percent cut remains a striking gap for a system that is already dramatically under-funded and overtaxed.  This 25 percent cut adds insult to injury in that there has been only a single 1 percent cost adjustment to community providers for the last five years.  The Governor’s budget has no cost of living increase for the next two years for community providers whereas a 3 percent cost-of-living allowance for most state employees is planned.  Behavioral health disorders affect far more Connecticut residents than physical illness. In fact, behavioral health conditions in the U.S. are more prevalent than heart disease and cancer combined. This year one in five adults in the United States will suffer from a mental illness alone.When you understand this reality, these cuts seem cruel and even potentially destabilizing to a system that is being pushed to its limits. Cuts to behavioral health services can only magnify the stigma that mental illness still carries in our society. Despite massive public education in recent years that mental illness is in fact physiologically based and can be treated very successfully when people can both seek and access help, too often this persistent stigma of seeking help prevents people who need treatment from getting the care they need in a timely fashion.The remaining budget cuts and the lack of a reasonable cost of living increase for a seven-year period will result in dramatically diminished access to outpatient counseling, medications and family support services.  Study after study continues to show community-based provider services to be far less expensive than those delivered by government employees, with no qualitative difference.  The Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee documented in January, 2012, that state-run programs cost twice as much to take care of clients at the same level of need as a private provider. After years of shortsighted under-funding behavioral health services in Connecticut, restoring funds for these high-impact programs is a smart investment. Continue Reading →

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Effort to shrink drug-free zones stalls

Someone caught selling cocaine in New Haven is almost certain to face the most severe charges, since almost all of the city is within a “Drug Free Zone,” with a school, day care or public housing facility nearby. Just a few towns over, in Madison, where there are fewer schools and the population is much smaller, few locations fall within these restricted zones, and anyone caught selling cocaine will likely face charges that carry less jail time. “The punishment shouldn’t be enhanced because of where you live,” said Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, on Thursday. “Fair is fair.”

But efforts by the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus to change a policy that disproportionately affects minorities have stalled indefinitely. After several hours of debate on a bill that would scale back these zones from the current 1,500 feet to 300 feet from a school or day care center, House of Representatives leaders decided the votes may not be there for it to pass. Continue Reading →

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Legislators: UConn expansion should not need approval from other college system

Plans to dramatically expand enrollment at the University of Connecticut advanced Thursday when the state House of Representatives voted to no longer require the state’s other public college system to approve the expansion.The measure now heads to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for his consideration.”We’ll review the bill,” a spokesman said.The governor’s proposal to increase enrollment at UConn by one-third has drawn concern from faculty at the state’s other college system struggling to recover from a “dire” budget deficit caused by enrollment declines. The Faculty Advisory Committee to the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities reports that its university presidents oppose UConn’s plan to expand its regional campuses.But concerns have also arisen as to whether it is appropriate for the Board of Regents that governs the 100,000-student ConnSCU system to be regulating its “competition.”“I am sure nobody wants to do anything that would lessen our effectiveness,” Lewis Robinson, the Regents chairman, said recently when asked about the UConn proposals.The House chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee said the bill creates a necessary “firewall between those schools they might be competing with for students.There is clearly a conflict of interest here,” said Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury.While the UConn expansion — dubbed “Next Generation” by its proponents — may soon no longer need approval from the other public college system, the future of the proposal does await news on whether it will be funded in the state’s next two-year budget.The legislature’s budget-writing committee recommended partially funding Malloy’s $2.1 billion proposal.   Continue Reading →

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