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Enzo Pastore on May 13, 2010 - 11:46am
Progressive legislators in Connecticut made some very solid gains in their 2010 session by enacting major legislation on a number of policy fronts.
Budget, Tax and Revenue: First and foremost, the General Assembly concluded their work on the state’s biennial budget last Friday by passing a near unanimous, bi-partisan $19 billion budget for the next fiscal year while also avoiding any increases to income, corporate or sales taxes. While critics claim the approved budget does not address future structural deficits in 2012 and 2013, the legislature and Governor Rell agreed to close a $726 million deficit through a combination of measures. Those steps include a plan to borrow $989 million, the anticipation of $366 million in additional federal stimulus funds, deferral of a $100 million payment to the state employees’ pension plan, improved revenue projections, reliance on a FY 2010 $140 million surplus and $177 million in spending cuts.
The plan to borrow $989 million is in the form of Economic Recovery Revenue bonds, which the legislature agreed to push out into 2012 — when lawmakers believe the economy will have turned around. To cover the payment for servicing the annual debt, the legislature authorized a $29 million cut from an energy conservation fund and the continuation of a surcharge on electric bills, which comes to about $2.50 per month for the average household.
Among the spending cuts are modest premium increases in HUSKY (the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program), reductions in funding for certain magnet schools, and further cuts to off-line accounts such as the Citizens' Election Fund, the Community Investment Act, and the Banking Fund. According to Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, a balanced budget agreement was reached without any tax increases at the same time steering clear of cuts in aid to municipalities and avoiding deep cuts to social service, health care and education programs that residents still depend upon in these troubled economic times.
Some lawmakers questioned the wisdom of the $100 million cut in next year’s recommended contribution to the state employee pension fund. They pointed to the fact that contributions due in the last and current fiscal year have already reduced the fund by a total of $214.5 million. However, the concession package ratified by state employee unions in 2009 allows this cut to go through on the sole condition that revenue projections stay above $300 million of the anticipated levels in 2010-11.
Job Growth: Recognizing that one of the best solutions for pulling out of the recession is through job creation, House and Senate leaders convened the Majority Leaders’ Job Growth Roundtable in 2009 to develop strategies for promoting facilitate short term job growth. The Job Growth Roundtable included members of the House and Senate, labor leaders, entrepreneurs, economists and the academic community. Recommendations from this task force are the basis for HB 5435, signed into law on May 6th. The legislation establishes an early-stage venture capital program, financing for the federal small business innovation research program and provisions to facilitate exporting state products and services. The bill also provides for energy-efficient school building projects, establishes a jobs creation tax credit and provides for an insurance reinvestment fund.
Education: The General Assembly took major steps in reforming and improving the state’s educational system. SB 438, still awaiting action by the Governor, puts the state in a more advantageous position to qualify for the next round of federal funds through the Race to the Top program. It also addresses Connecticut’s achievement gap, deemed to be one of the highest in the country. SB 438 took a significant number of steps to enable it to receive Race to the Top funding, just some of which are:
- Creating an alternate route to certification for administrators
- The expansion of educational data systems
- Teacher evaluation tied to multiple indicators for student growth
- Creation of a performance evaluation advisory council to assist the state department of education in developing teacher evaluation guidelines, data collection and evaluation
- Establishing Innovation Schools
- Creating a statewide accountability plan
In order to address the achievement gap in Connecticut, SB 438 requires school boards with low-achieving schools to create and empower school governance councils made up mostly of students' parents or guardians.
Clean Energy and Green Jobs: The Legislature enacted a forward thinking energy bill in 2010. SB 493 signifies a major step towards a cleaner and more efficient energy future, creating and retaining jobs in clean energy industries in the process. The bill provides for increasing the use of solar, wind, fuel cell and other renewable energy sources and creating innovative financing programs to help families and businesses invest in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies. Other major components of the bill will be to reduce electric rates for families and businesses by giving the state’s Department of Public Utility Control (DPUC) procurement manager more flexibility in procuring power, creating and retaining green jobs through grant and loan programs, incentives for the installation of solar projects and other progressive innovations. It also establishes consumer protections in the form of direct billing practices and written contract requirements. This bill has also not yet been acted upon by the Governor.
Health Care: A number of important health access and insurance reform measures were passed this session. Some of the more major initiatives (all of which save HB 5295 have been signed by the Governor) include:
- HB 5002 is designed to assist small employers in finding and securing affordable insurance for their employees. This bill establishes the Connecticut Clearinghouse (effective July 1, 2010) where individuals and employers with less than 50 employees may obtain information about health insurance policies in Connecticut, including premium quotes that include coverage for part-time employees.
- Health insurance companies are now required to provide Connecticut consumers with an explanation of why they have been denied coverage for procedures because they are not medically necessary or not a covered benefit. HB 5235 also supports the Office of the Healthcare Advocate (OHA), which provides assistance to consumers to help them challenge such denials of coverage and get the services they pay for.
- HB 5219 extends employer sponsored health coverage under the state’s “mini-COBRA” plan from 18 to 30 months after they are laid off. Recent federal legislation assists laid off employees by subsidizing 65% of their premiums for up to 15 months under federal COBRA, separate from the coverage addressed in this bill.
- With the passage of HB 5303 insurance companies will be required to submit annual report denial data to the Insurance Department for posting on its website and inclusion in the department’s annual Consumer Report Card. Employers and consumers will now be able to access this data and use it to compare the quality of different plans.
- HB 5295 gives municipalities the option of purchasing prescription drug coverage through the state employee plan, taking advantage of the bargaining power, low administrative costs and substantial discounts negotiated by the large state employee pool. The state comptroller recently began permitting the Teachers Retirement Board to use the state’s pharmaceutical buying power and with the addition of 16,000 retired teachers reduced costs on both the part of the teachers and the state for a combined $3 million.
Domestic Violence: Because of an increase in media coverage highlighting some of the most tragic domestic violence incidents, Speaker of the House Chris Donovan exerted his leadership by convening a 2009 bipartisan legislative task force to study domestic violence issues. The task force met with and received input from a score of advocates, survivors, law enforcement, service providers and state agency staff working on the front lines. Out of these discussions and research came a series of recommendations aimed at making meaningful changes to provide more aid to victims of domestic violence. The task force proposed three bills all of which passed in both the House and Senate. But in addition to the three bills, the task force will continue to develop long term recommendations aimed at strengthening education and services. All three are resting with the Governor.
- HB 5315 adds teen dating violence and domestic violence to the list of topics covered in teacher training programs. This will empower educators to recognize and respond to warning signs ideally helping to reduce the incidence of domestic violence and prevent its escalation.
- HB 5246 requires the State Dept. of Social Services to make yearly transfers of marriage license surcharge funds to the Connecticut’s 18 regional domestic violence programs, thereby providing some relief to victims who need to break their leases. The bill also requires the Department of Public Health to develop a public service announcement aimed at preventing teen dating violence and domestic violence.
- HB 5497 makes improvements to the justice system implementing a number of measures including: a GPS pilot program to monitor high risk offenders, improving the enforcement of protective orders, eliminating the look-back period for persistent offenders, implementing employment protections for family violence victims and promoting the development of dedicated domestic violence court dockets.
Housing for People with Disabilities: This bill authorizes the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), in consultation with the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA), to establish a program that encourages developers to build residential homes that are easy for people with disabilities to visit. What is commonly known as “visitable housing” is defined as having “visitable features” including wider interior doorways, accessible entry and bathroom facilities that are accessible to people with disabilities. HB 5372 exempts developers from a requirement to obtain a State Building Code variance or exemption to construct visitable homes. And, it authorizes municipal legislative bodies to adopt ordinances giving these developers a property tax abatement.
- Paid Sick Days: For the third year in a row, progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups including Connecticut Working Families and MomsRising led the way in support of legislation for paid sick days. But with groups like the Connecticut Business & Industry Association lobbying hard against it, the bill met a similar fate as in years past and was defeated. SB 63 managed to win approval in two Senate Committees but never made it to the full floor of the Senate. This year's bill would have required businesses with 50 or more employees to let employees accrue up to 40 hours, or five days worth of paid sick time in addition to preventing employers from discriminating against a worker who requests or uses the time. Senator Edith Prague, a staunch advocate for paid sick days, said the fight will resume once again in 2011 with a new governor and hopefully more support.
- Health Insurance Reform: One notable health insurance reform bill that passed in the House but stalled in the Senate was HB 5090. Responding to proposed double-digit rate hikes for 56,000 Connecticut residents, the bill would have put into place a new rate review process for individual health insurance policies, in effect holding insurance companies accountable for excessive increases in premium rates.
CT News Junkie - House Joins Senate In Passing Budget; Rell Will Sign It
The Connecticut Mirror - New Budget Postpones Hard Fiscal Decisions for Another Year
Kaiser Health News - As Health Insurance Premiums Rise Sharply, Lawmakers And Consumers Face Tough Choices
Connecticut Teachers Association - 2010 Education Bills
House Democrats of Connecticut - End of Session Report 2010
Courant.com Capitol Watch -Paid Sick Leave Passes The Appropriations Committee