Monthly Archives: July 2013

House approves student loan deal

Washington – Connecticut’s House delegation split with the state’s U.S. senators Wednesday by voting for a bill that would lower interest rates on a popular student loan – at least temporarily.The House approved the student loan bill on a lopsided 392-31 vote.Every member of Connecticut’s House delegation supported the bill, which would lower interest rates on Stafford loans, which had shot up July 1 to 6.8 percent for undergraduates. Interest rates would be higher, however, for graduates and parents who borrow on behalf of their children.The deal lowers the rate for undergraduates to 3.86 percent. But it also ties the interest rate of Stafford loans to the value of U.S. Treasury bonds, which means rates are likely to rise as the economy recovers.Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, led the effort to sell the plan to House Democrats.Like many lawmakers who supported the bill, Courtney said, “It isn’t perfect.”But he said it was the best a divided Congress could do to help students enrolling for the fall term in the next few weeks.“There will be real borrower certainty and protection,” Courtney said.The student loan bill is a compromise approved by the Senate earlier this month between Democrats who wanted to freeze the rate at 3.4 percent and Republicans who liked a GOP House bill that tied the loans to market interest rates.Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, the state’s two Democratic senators, voted against the Senate deal because, they said, they were concerned rates would eventually rise so much that students would find it difficult to afford Stafford loans.But Courtney said the Senate deal was a great improvement over a “reckless” bill that House Republicans had approved in May “that would subject students to unpredictable rates that would reset annually throughout the life of the loan and cost Connecticut students and their families more.”While loan rates on the Stafford program will fluctuate under the compromise, they will be frozen for the life of a loan. The deal also lowered a cap on the interest rate, to 8.25 for undergraduates and higher for graduate students.Courtney  and other Connecticut Democrats who supported the bill, including Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, said the bill’s approval is not the end of the issue and that they hope Congress modifies the program again before interest rates go up too much.“Make no mistake, even with this bill’s passage, there’s much more to be done to make college affordable,” Esty said.Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, commended Courtney for “his leadership on this issue.”“While the fight to reduce student debt is far from over, this bipartisan legislation provides much needed relief for our students and their families,” Larson said.Although Courtney and other Democratic supporters of the bill insisted it is a major improvement over the Republican bill approved in May, House Speaker John Boehner said it is “almost identical.”“Going forward, the whims of Washington politicians won’t dictate student loan interest rates, meaning more certainty and more opportunities for students to take advantage of lower rates,” Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said.The bill now goes to President Obama, who supports the legislation and is expected to sign it.  Continue Reading →

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Services for victims of domestic violence are stretched thin

On any given day, dozens of women in Connecticut seeking help to get out of abusive relationships will be denied services or put on a waiting list for assistance with housing, counseling, transportation or legal services.Many of them have children.“Domestic violence has deep and lasting effects on children,” Joette Katz, commissioner of the state’s child welfare agency, said Wednesday. “We have very complex and difficult work to do.”Child advocates say that these unmet needs –- mapped out annually in a census of Connecticut’s network of programs — show that the state still has a lot of work to do to ensure that children are shielded from family violence.“Our shelters in Connecticut are at capacity 95 to 98 percent of the time, which you can imagine is a real challenge,” said Karen Jarmoc, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The state’s emergency domestic violence shelters housed 1,018 children in 2012. Meanwhile, the consequences for children who remain in a volatile living situation can be grave. Since 2000, more than 60 children have witnessed a parent or guardian  being killed during a domestic dispute, Jarmoc’s group reports.Dr. Nina Livingston, who works at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and at St. Francis Hospital & Medical Center, sees the impact these situations have on children.“I recently saw a 6-month-old infant with a depressed skull fracture who happened to be in his mother’s arms when his father began punching her. Continue Reading →

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Yes, a pleasant stroll through Sandy Hook

Newtown – Never has a first selectman been so happy to talk to a governor about her sidewalks, a simple ribbon of reddish concrete stamped to look like brick. They now wind through her town’s quaint village, a 19th century crossroads called Sandy Hook.One can walk on Patricia Llodra’s walkway from the United Methodist Church, down the hill to a shop crammed with local art and on to The Toy Tree, a shop chock-a-block with childhood innocence and delights: rubber balls, toy soldiers, LEGO sets.Getting sidewalks installed was Llodra’s passion over the past decade. She has her own verb for the process, “sidewalking.” And until Dec. 14, the sidewalks of Sandy Hook were going to be a big piece of Llodra’s legacy as a diligent and long-serving New England first selectman.“You can’t come to Newtown without relating to Dec. 14,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Wednesday, standing close to Llodra in the shade of long-needled pines outside the church. Continue Reading →

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Hartford coalition to target racial, ethnic health disparities

Shawn Wooden drew murmurs of recognition from the audience as he recalled growing up in the North End of Hartford.“I feel like I spent all of my childhood at St. Francis Hospital being treated for asthma,” Wooden, the Hartford City Council president, said Wednesday at the city’s Wilson-Gray YMCA.The memory has particular potency among black and Hispanic Connecticut residents, who are far more likely to have the condition than their white counterparts. Nearly a third of black children in the state had a history of asthma in 2008, as did 28 percent of Hispanic children. Among white children, the rate was less than half as high — 13.6 percent.Wooden is part of a Hartford coalition of more than two dozen organizations that has received a national grant to target health disparities that affect black and Latino residents.The grant program, known as REACH — Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health grant — is administered by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and will provide the Hartford group with $150,000 for two years. It’s intended to fund work that will spur policy and environmental changes.Other communities that have received the grants in the past have focused on topics including diabetes, asthma and access to healthy foods. Continue Reading →

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Auditors: State agency doled out $37M while violating public notice law

A state economic development agency that approved nearly $37 million in total aid to businesses in 2011 and 2012 failed to give public notice of its meetings during that time as required by law, the state auditors disclosed Wednesday.The quasi-public Connecticut Development Authority also did not submit an annual schedule of its meetings with the Secretary of the State’s Office – another violation of Connecticut’s right-to-know laws.The legislature merged the CDA with a second quasi-public state development group, Connecticut Innovations Inc., in 2012, even as the meeting notice violations were happening.And while the new merged entity retains the name Connecticut Innovations Inc., its 17-member Board of Directors includes several officials who served on the CDA oversight panel.State Auditors John C. Geragosian and Robert M. Ward reported that the former authority failed to meet two of its meeting notice obligations under Connecticut’s Freedom of Information statutes:Meeting agendas were not filed with the Secretary of the State’s Office in 2011 and 2012.An annual schedule of meetings was not filed with the secretary’s office in 2012.“Members of the public wishing to attend meetings may not have been aware of the meetings and the business to be discussed,” the auditors wrote.Armed with public funding, the CDA made and guaranteed business loans and provided other forms of financing for business projects.During the two-year audit period, the CDA approved a wide range of business assistance including:$15.2 million in loans and $750,000 in loan guarantees for manufacturing projects that add jobs, enhance exports and support new uses for defense technology;$8 million to insure loans to help companies acquire industrial land, buildings, machinery and equipment;$5.6 million in loans to businesses to add machinery and equipment;$1 million in guarantees for business loans deemed riskier than convention business financing.In addition, the CDA wrote off $6.7 million in loan payments owed to the state during the audit period.According to the auditors’ report, “CDA staff informed us that it maintained meeting agendas in its office during the audited period. Agendas were sent to the public when requested.”CDA staff also indicated they believed incorrectly that agendas did not have to be filed with the secretary’s office because the authority was a political subdivision of the state. Also according to the auditors, the new agency agrees that all meeting posting requirements must be met.Connecticut Innovations issued a written statement Wednesday afternoon.”Historically the CDA has approved the schedule of  meetings in December, posted them on our website and sent the information to the Secretary of (the) State’s Office,” the statement read. “Through a clerical oversight we did not send the schedule to the Secretary of (the) State’s office this year even though the information was posted to our website. We have taken the necessary steps to ensure this oversight will not occur again.”Connecticut Innovations before the merger had invested public dollars primarily in early stage technology businesses and provided other forms of venture financing. The merged entity assumes all of these roles plus those of the former CDA.The merger statute increased Connecticut Innovations’ oversight panel from 15 to 17 members – and four of those 17 also served on the CDA’s Board of Directors.They are:Michael A. Cantor, who is chairman of the new Connecticut Innovations board and co-managing partner of Cantor Colburn LLP, a national law firm with offices in Hartford;Former state Rep. Richard T. Mulready, who is chairman and chief executive officer of RM Bradley Management Corp. Continue Reading →

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NTSB speeds investigation of Metro-North accidents

The National Transportation Safety Board said it will hold hearings in October to help an investigation into two incidents involving Metro–North that occurred in May – the death of a Metro-North foreman on the tracks near West Haven and the derailment and crash nine days earlier of a commuter train near Bridgeport.The NTSB earlier had said the investigations into those accidents were likely to take more than a year, drawing criticism from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and other lawmakers who said the process needed to be speeded up.Blumenthal said Wednesday that he “welcomed the hearing,” scheduled for held Oct. 22 and 23.“I hope the report will be completed in the near future, certainly sooner than the 18 months initially projected, “ Blumenthal said in a statement. “Rail users deserve to know exactly what happened and what will be done to prevent such disasters from occurring again.”On May 17, an eastbound Metro-North passenger train derailed and was struck by a westbound Metro-North passenger train. As a result, 73 passengers, two engineers and a conductor were transported to local hospitals with injuries.On May 28, a Metro-North track foreman was struck and killed by a Metro-North westbound passenger train in West Haven. The foreman had asked that the section of track he was working on be taken out of service for maintenance, and it was. Continue Reading →

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Commerce secretary tours a Wallingford company famous in the oil patch

Wallingford – It’s a long way from here to the oil fields of China, Russia, Turkey and Dubai, where APS Technology helps modern-day roughnecks drill faster, smarter and deeper.From an upscale industrial park off I-91 in the heart of Connecticut, APS has hit an economic gusher, averaging annual revenue growth of 40 percent over most of its 20-year history as it’s become a world leader in drilling technology.Penny Pritzker, the new U.S. commerce secretary, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Tuesday came for a tour of a factory that’s benefitted from a $5 million economic development loan from the state and support from the Commerce Department, which recognized the company last spring as an export leader.APS was the perfect backdrop for a White House and a gubernatorial administration trying to promote exports and emphasize the value of advanced manufacturing to job growth and economic recovery nationally and in Connecticut, a state that’s recovered just half the jobs lost in the 2008 recession.“Let’s be clear, very clear, what this company is. It is Connecticut’s sweet spot,” Malloy said. “This is high value added manufacturing, which we can compete with anyone in the world for.”A visit Tuesday to New York and Connecticut was the second road trip for Pritzker, a Chicago billionaire once described as Barack Obama’s most important fundraiser, since she was sworn in June 26.About 85 percent of APS’ revenue comes from exports, and the Commerce Department has offered valuable legal advice as the company has expanded overseas, said William Turner, the company president.Turner, the tall and soft-spoken engineer and inventor who founded APS in 1993, escorted Pritzker and Malloy around the APS factory, a brightly lit collection of computer-driven machines that machine metal.Their last stop was a steerable drilling device, a new product that’s being tested in what has to be central Connecticut’s deepest well -– a hole 2,600 feet deep that’s been drilled just off the parking lot for the past two years.It can move 15 degrees off vertical for every 100 feet it travels.“This kind of precision manufacturing is what America needs to be known for,” Pritzker said. “We need to help support and create environments where entrepreneurs like Bill can start companies, grow companies that can be competitive in the 21st century.”Connecticut has a greater historical connection to whale oil than crude. The presence here of one of the world’s leading oil technology companies derives from the aerospace origins of the discipline.Raymond Industries, a Middletown company whose product line included sensors tough enough to survive in space and deep under the sea, gave birth to Teleco Oilfield Services.In the late 1970s, Teleco perfected the first sensor that could give drillers immediate feedback about the location of the drill head and other data. Continue Reading →

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Are business taxes that high given what Connecticut companies can earn?

Connecticut’s business taxes don’t loom quite so large when compared with the revenues companies rake in throughout the Nutmeg State.A recent study commissioned by a national coalition of nearly 600 multi-state corporations found Connecticut continues to offer one of the most favorable business tax climates in the country – even after the hefty tax hike ordered two years ago to close a major state budget deficit.But a veteran Republican on the state legislature’s tax-writing panel said the study is flawed, failing to take into account high business costs besides taxes that eat the potential profits of Connecticut’s companies.The analysis prepared for the Council On State Taxation by the global accounting firm of Ernst & Young placed Connecticut in a four-way tie for the second-most-favorable state and local business tax burden when compared with its gross state product -– the cumulative value of its business productivity.The study also found Connecticut’s business tax burden represents just three-quarters of the national average and is just one tenth more than North Carolina’s, which ranks as the nation’s most favorable.“The governor has been clear that he’s out there every day competing for jobs, and what this report shows us is that Connecticut is an extremely competitive place to do business,” Gov. Dannel; P. Malloy’s spokesman, Andrew Doba, said Tuesday. “That’s part of the reason why we’re adding jobs at a faster clip right now than at any other point since the recession began.”The premise behind the report is simple: It’s not sufficient simply to look at the total business taxes a state and its cities and towns levy on companies.“Because state and local business tax bases include a diverse mixture of receipts — net income, input purchases, payroll, property and other tax bases — a broad measure of a state’s overall economic activity should be used to determine the measure of aggregate business tax burden,” the report states.COST had ranked Connecticut as having the third-most-favorable business tax burden among all 50 states and the District of Columbia in the 2010-11 fiscal year.Things changed in 2011 when, according to the study, taxes on businesses rose by 10.3 percent in the Nutmeg State –- the fifth-highest jump among the 50 states.When Malloy took office in January 2011, nonpartisan state analysts were projecting a shortfall in the 2011-12 fiscal year of nearly $3.7 billion. That was an unprecedented margin that approached one-fifth of the annual operating budget.To close that gap, Malloy and his fellow Democrats in the legislature’s majority approved $1.5 billion in new state taxes and nearly $100 million in new revenue that could be raised by cities and towns.Another $350 million in new taxes on hospitals was ordered as well two years ago. Initially all revenues from that tax were returned to hospitals as part of a complicated arrangement to leverage more federal aid.But now the state keeps about $200 million per year of that levy, requiring hospitals to treat more poor patients – and qualify for more state Medicaid payments – to compensate for those lost tax dollars.Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, a longtime member of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said the new study “doesn’t fool anybody who’s in business” in Connecticut.Candelora, whose family runs a wire manufacturing business and a recreational complex in North Branford, said it’s not enough to compare taxes with the total value of goods and services businesses produce.If a state-by-state comparison is going to be fair, it must recognize that taxes are just one of the costs businesses face. And Connecticut, Candelora added, has some of the highest energy, health care, labor and transportation costs in the nation, as well as a hefty tax burden.“It’s undeniable that Connecticut has good skilled labor,” Candelora said. Continue Reading →

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A glimpse at Obamacare insurance rates and assumptions behind them

You’ll still have to wait a bit to find out exactly what it will cost to buy a health plan through the state’s new insurance marketplace, known as Access Health CT. But on Tuesday, actuaries consulting for the marketplace’s board gave their take on the proposed premiums. Continue Reading →

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‘No wrong door’ for health reform coverage? Not quite, official says

In theory, there will be “no wrong door” for Connecticut residents without health insurance to get signed up for coverage as part of the federal health reform law. They’ll be able to apply through the state’s new insurance marketplace and get connected through a computerized system to either a set of options for private insurance plans to buy, or free Medicaid coverage.In reality, it might not be quite so simple.For one thing, the process won’t be entirely automated for the estimated 55,000 people who will become eligible for Medicaid as of Jan. 1. Instead, because of outdated technology at the state Department of Social Services, information will have to be manually entered by a state contractor into the department’s eligibility management system, at least for the first year.And even for people buying private insurance, getting through the eligibility process is not likely to be a simple transaction.“Our thinking is only roughly 3 percent of people will be able to get by without some kind of phone call or assistance,” said Kevin Counihan, CEO of Access Health CT, the state’s health insurance exchange, a marketplace for people to buy insurance as part of the federal health reform law.Access Health will have a call center for people to apply or seek information, and Counihan said the expectation is that the average call will last about 55 minutes. Still, Connecticut’s exchange is taking steps that Counihan believes could make the process smoother than it will be in many other states. Signing upAccess Health CT will begin taking applications Oct. 1 for health plans that take effect Jan. Continue Reading →

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UConn taps reserves to close budget shortfall

University of Connecticut officials plan to significantly draw down the system’s emergency reserves this fiscal year to close a $30.8 million budget gap. “This is the first time we have had to deplete this fund to this extent… It’s a sign of the times,” said Lysa Teal, UConn’s vice president of finance and budget. This move to use one-time revenue to cover nearly 3 percent of the college system’s budget is unusual — but necessary, said Teal. “It’s a gap that we haven’t been able to close another way.”

The state’s flagship university ended last fiscal year on June 30 with $71.8 million in reserves. The reserve fund has not dipped below $40 million since 2004, when the system’s budget was two-thirds the size it is now. Continue Reading →

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Courtney leads Democratic efforts on student loan bill

Washington — It’s up to Rep. Joe Courtney to round up votes in the House this week for a bill that would limit future increases in student loan interest rates. The bill was approved last week in the Senate.Courtney, Connecticut’s 2nd District Democrat, has tried for years to keep interest rates low on the popular Stafford loans that help thousands of students afford college.Democratic House leaders are now tapping that expertise.House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week called Courtney “the leader in the House on the subject on [the Democratic] side.” And House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., tapped Courtney last week to explain the student loan bill to House Democrats.As he lobbies his Democratic colleagues, Courtney has a tough job. He’s trying to sell a bipartisan compromise reached in the Senate that’s similar to legislation House Democrats rejected in May.The bill approved by a Republican majority in May tied loan interest rates on the popular Stafford loans to the 10-year Treasury note.The Senate-passed version, which received White House backing, resembles the House bill but caps interest rates at a lower level, and doesn’t allow rates to fluctuate over the life of a loan. “The most important borrower protection which was incorporated into the compromise is that families who are taking out loans will have their loans fixed for the whole term of the loan, and that’s a huge difference from the House Republican bill,” Courtney said. “The numbers are better, the rate’s lower …there’s a lower cap.”Pelosi said, “it isn’t the bill we would have written, but it is a bill that can pass and will have Democrats for and against.”House GOP leaders indicated they will put a new student loan bill on the floor for a vote this week, most likely on Wednesday.It’s important for Courtney to find Democratic votes for the student loan bill because it’s likely the House will take up the bill under suspension of the rules, a fast-track procedure that would require two-thirds support for passage.Meanwhile, it’s unclear how much support for that bill Courtney will muster from the Connecticut House delegation.Elizabeth Kerr, press secretary to Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said Friday she doesn’t know how the lawmaker will vote. She said Himes was out of the country on a trip with Intelligence Committee members, and was not available for comment.There was no immediate response from the offices of Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, or Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District.But Courtney has won the backing of Rep. John Larson, D-1st District.“While clearly improvements can be made, we should move this forward to provide immediate relief for our students,” Larson said.As far as the other Connecticut lawmakers, Courtney said, “They are trying to digest it, it’s a compromise with negatives and positives.”A law that kept the previous rate of Stafford student loans for undergraduates at 3.4 percent expired July 1, at which point interest rates doubled, to 6.8 percent.The deal considered by the Senate would lower rates for undergraduates to 3.8 percent. Graduate students and parents borrowing money for their children would have higher interest rates, 5.4 percent and 6.4 percent respectively.Connecticut’s senators called this a “teaser” rate, noting that the rate would rise as interest rates rise to a point where students could no longer afford to pay back their loans.Connecticut’s two Democratic senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, were among 18 senators who voted “no” on the student loan bill.They also objected to the federal government’s profiting from the loans. Continue Reading →

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Jepsen asked to review Waterbury Hospital deal

Health care activists asked Attorney General George Jepsen on Friday to seek a new review of the proposed takeover of Waterbury Hospital by Vanguard Health Systems, a for-profit health care company.Vanguard is being purchased by Tenet, another for-profit hospital company, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recently vetoed legislation affecting the sale of Waterbury Hospital. Both developments require review, the activists say.The request was made by Tom Swan of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group and Ellen Andrews of the Connecticut Health Policy Project, whose concerns are broader than Vanguard’s purchase by Tenet or Malloy’s veto.“We think there needs to be a more public debate on the future of hospitals in Connecticut, and as part of that a key question should be whether or not we want an increase in for-profit hospitals,” Swan said.Technically, they are asking Jepsen to reconsider his determination that Vanguard’s application for a certificate of need was complete.The bill Malloy vetoed would have created a governance structure for for-profit hospitals modeled after a law passed in 2009 allowing hospitals and health systems to take part in nonprofit “medical foundations” as a way to employ doctors. Without it, supporters of the 2009 law said, hospitals would have trouble acquiring physician practices because of federal laws, including an anti-kickback statute.  The structure is key to a major change under way in Connecticut’s health care landscape as doctors in solo or small practices give up independent practice to join large provider networks run by hospital systems.“We think the governor did the right thing in vetoing the legislation,” Swan said.Jepsen could not be immediately reached for comment Friday evening. Continue Reading →

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