HARTFORD — Despite already stratospheric prices at the pump, one of the largest gasoline tax hikes in state history could hit Connecticut beginning on July 1. The scheduled expiration of a temporary cap on taxes of wholesale gasoline would raise retail prices at the pump by an average of four cents per gallon.

State Sen. Art Linares (R-33) of Westbrook has begun an online petition drive demanding that legislators scuttle the proposed levy. He points out that gasoline taxes here are already about 22 cents per gallon higher than in neighboring states such as Massachusetts. The petition may be accessed at Senatorlinares.com.

Soon, I will deliver this petition to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy,” writes the freshman lawmaker. “With many signatures from people like you, we can send a clear message to Hartford: We are sick and tired of new taxes.”

Battle brews over selling assets to pay pensions

HARTFORD — The partisan battle over state government's finances heated up again in the first days of May after a top Republican lawmaker questioned the sale of pension fund assets to cover benefits owed to retired workers.

But state Treasurer Denise L. Nappier countered May 3 that "nothing constructive can be gained" by House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero's comments, adding that state assets have to be sold on occasions during tough fiscal times.

"This is more troubling proof that Connecticut's finances are in crisis and that our spending exceeds our revenues in every corner of the state bureaucracy,'' said Cafero, a Norwalk Republican. "We are continually told that our budgets will balance and that we have enough revenue coming in the door. Neither is true.''

Nappier recently informed the state's Investment Advisory Council (IAC) that her office would liquidate $266 million in "core long-term public investments" from the pension fund for state employees, and $161.5 million from the teachers' fund.

Cafero added that Nappier also notified the IAC that both pension funds "are projected to continue to have insufficient contributions and dividend and interest receipts,'' to meet pension payrolls.

Both pension programs suffer from decades of underfunding as past governors and legislatures raided or deferred payments in tough fiscal times.

According to the last actuarial analyses, the state employees' fund held enough assets to cover about 42 percent of its long-term obligations, and the teachers' fund held 55 percent.

Analysts typically cite 80 percent as a healthy ratio.

 

But Nappier wrote in a statement Friday that "the sale of ... pension assets in order to pay benefits has become a normal course of business. This is not news."

She noted that while pension investment earnings have improved since the last recession, there are still signs that the economy is far from strong.

State budget analysts recently downgraded revenue expectations for the next two fiscal years by nearly $500 million this week.

 

This story originally appeared in CTMirror.com, where a longer version of it may be read.

Lower Connecticut River COG forms agriculture council

 

The governing board of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments (River COG) has voted unanimously to create the state’s first Regional Agriculture Council.

The objective of the council is to support farming in the 17 member municipalities and promote agriculture-friendly land use and municipal policies.

In 2011 Public Act 11-188, (“An Act Authorizing Local and Regional Agricultural Councils and Concerning Consideration of Agriculture in Local Plans of Conservation and Development and Zoning Regulations”) was enacted by the General Assembly. Originally proposed by the Connecticut Farm Bureau, this bill encourages formation of commissions or councils to bring agricultural concerns to the forefront of discussions on planning and zoning within municipalities.

While there are about 20 agriculture commissions in municipalities across the state, River COG is the first to establish the regional commission.

"Our region faces many issues related to agricultural development," said Middlesex County Farm Bureau President Walter Adametz, "and it seemed like we could address and resolve some of the bigger concerns of agriculture if we tackle them together rather than try to align 17 different municipal commissions.

“Granted, some communities may vary in their views, but there's a trend toward regionalizing resources of all kinds so this just made sense to try,” he added. “This council seems like the most efficient body to proactively focus on the opportunities for farming in the lower Connecticut river valley.”

The 17 communities represented by River COG include Chester, Clinton, Cromwell, Deep River, Durham, East Haddam, East Hampton, Essex, Killingworth, Haddam, Lyme, Middlefield, Middletown, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Portland and Westbrook.

A non-governmental, membership organization serving farm families, the Connecticut Farm Bureau's mission is to advocate for agriculture and find solutions for concerns facing production agriculture throughout Connecticut. More information about its work is available by visiting   cfba.org.

 

 What state lawmakers have in store for businesses this legislative session

 

HARTFORD — Workers who bicycle to the office are likely to take a little longer reaching their destination if a proposed bill limiting cyclists to single-lane travel is passed.

That’s one of several bills being introduced during the current legislative session that could directly impact employers, the workplace and the shape of the state’s workforce. Other potential laws under consideration include tightening firearm purchase and storage requirements, creating a workforce-development regional council, and establishing a set-aside contractor program for disabled veterans.

State Sen. Kevin Witkos (R-Canton) introduced the bicycling measure, S.B. 103, which enforces the law requiring drivers to pass riders safely and yield three feet to them.

State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-Greenwich) introduced the set-aside bill for disabled veterans.

The proposed legislation would require state and quasi-public state agencies extending contracts of more than $10,000 for goods and services annually to reserve three percent of those contracts for competitive bidding by qualified disabled veteran proprietors.

“I introduced this bill to recognize the sacrifices hat disabled veterans have made on our behalf,” said Frantz. “After returning home from the battlefield, veterans readjust to civilian life and deserve to have an opportunity to operate successful business ventures. In my judgment, we have a responsibility to recognize this sacrifice and give back to those disabled veterans who return home and seek to apply their skills to the business world.”

Frantz elaborated on that point during a BNH interview.

“I always assumed we did have a set-aside for veterans, and especially disabled veterans,” said Frantz, noting existing programs for women and minority business-owners. He learned about the exclusion from Stamford businessman Dean Chamberlain, a U.S. Army veteran who was wounded in the line of duty.

 

Frantz also notes that the bill has been introduced during previous sessions.

 “It’s hard to say why bills fail in the General Assembly,” says Frantz, who testified before the legislature’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee on February 19 in support of the current bill. He says he’s received bipartisan support for the measure.

“So far the feedback has been excellent,” he says. “The hearing went very, very well.”

Among other measures Frantz supports is legislation introduced supporting studying the effects of violent video games on youngsters.

“The original bill is part of maybe ten or 12 different bills addressing the [December 14] Newtown incident,” Frantz notes. “One of the bills was, let’s take a look at [the effect of] violent video games on violent behavior.”

The goal is to use information from existing studies and apply that knowledge in a public service capacity,” says Frantz.

“It’s more of a data-collection exercise,” he explains, adding that scores of studies have information that could be valuable to the community.

The particular bill that attracted Frantz support is SB 260: “An Act Concerning the Effects of Violent Video Games on Youth Behavior.” It is one of about a dozen bills introduced this session in reaction to the multiple homicides  at Newtown’s Sandy Hook School on December 14. Local resident Adam Lanza, age 20, shot and killed 20 elementary-school children and six adults at the school before committing suicide. He also killed his mother.

In addition to studying and attempting to understand the effects of video games, proposed legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings focuses on gun restrictions, as well as helping parents identify and seek treatment for children with mental-health issues. Among those bills:

• “An Act Creating a Mental Health First Aid Program for Parents” (Proposed Bill No. 654) would amend the General Statutes to create a first-aid mental health program for parents to help them better understand, identify and address mental-illness warning signs.

• “An Act Concerning the Establishment of an Anonymous School Violence Hotline” (Proposed Bill No. 719) would require the state’s Department of Education to create such a hotline.

• “An Act Requiring More Intruder-Resistant School Buildings and Improved Security Methods” (Proposed Bill No. 5319) would establish new security standards for schools, with the intention of making them more intruder-resistant.

• “An Act Concerning Suitability for a Pistol or Revolver Permit” (Proposed Bill No. 780) would establish legal requirements for assessing “suitability” to obtain a permit and would give municipal authorities additional time to consider applications.

• “An Act Requiring Presentation of a State Pistol or Revolver Permit to Purchase Ammunition” (Proposed Bill No 781) would restrict ammunition sales to those with a firearm permit.

• “An Act Concerning Large Capacity Firearm Magazines and Similar Devices” (Proposed Bill No. 676) would forbid owning, selling or making any kind of exchange in or into Connecticut devices that could accommodate in excess of ten rounds of ammunition.

• “An Act Increasing the Penalty for Threatening with Respect to a School” (Proposed Bill No. 791) targets anyone who threatens to commit a violent crime on school premises and/or against the occupants of a school.

Some proposals would require the state to show preference to homegrown products. Raised Bill No. 804, for example, would establish Connecticut-grown beef, pork and lamb preferences when state agencies make such purchases.

Proposed Bill No. 787 aims to help small businesses by ending the limit on the number of small manufacturers that can hold manufacturing reinvestment accounts. The bill also would end the tax on withdrawals from a manufacturing reinvestment account.

Local businesses negatively affected by construction projects for six months or more would gain reimbursement for their property taxes if Proposed Bill No. 693 passes.

Following the First Five/Next Five initiative, Proposed Bill No. 5035 seeks to create a similar tax break for small businesses creating new jobs. It would provide a tax credit for the first 50 businesses with less than 50 employees agreeing to create at least ten new full-time jobs by June 30, 2014.

Proposed Bill No. 5021 also offers a business tax credit. Specifically, it would establish a $500 credit for each high school-level student the company takes on as an intern as part of a partnership between the business and one or more public high schools. Go even further and offer a scholarship to a student in a manufacturing training program, and that would also garner a tax credit for your business, if Proposed Bill No. 5018 passes.

Some bills give greater authority to municipalities. Proposed Bill No. 830, for example, would require the state Siting Council to defer to project restrictions a municipal governing body might impose. Proposed Bill No. 692 would increase to $15,000 (from $7,500) the threshold amount required for competitive bidding for a municipal contract.

Businesses focusing on elder care and other senior services would be affected is Raised Bill No. 939 in enacted. The measure would create a registry of persons convicted of crimes against the elderly, established by the Chief State’s Attorney.

And some proposals, while introduced as a means to reduce the cost of government, would directly affect the income of some individual public employees and retirees. The include: “An Act Reducing the Salaries of State Elected Officials and State Employees” (Proposed Bill No. 5137); “An Act Excluding Reimbursements to State Employees for Mileage or Other Expenses from the Calculation of Retirement Income” (Proposed Bill No. 5010); and “An Act Increasing the Number of Months Before Certain Teachers May Attain Tenure” (Proposed Bill No. 6275).

 ’Smart’ housing policy choices urged

 

HARTFORD — Low mortgage rates and declining unemployment nationwide are helping to buoy the state’s housing market, according to the spring 2013 issue of The Connecticut Economy: A University of Connecticut Quarterly Review. Yet maintaining this positive trend depends on a continued revival of the national economy. A healthy housing market in the state also depends on smart policy choices, say the editors, who outline housing policy choices, including property taxes, housing needs for Connecticut’s changing population and whether a mix of housing enhances property values.

A guest commentary urges Connecticut municipalities to broaden their range of housing options to survive demographic change in the state. As baby-boomers seek to downsize, many younger-generation workers who might swap places with new retirees cannot afford to buy their single-family homes, thus threatening the tax base of many towns.  

Conventional wisdom holds that property taxes are rising and local spending is out of control, assert the Review’s editors. Connecticut traditionally has relied on local governments to deliver public services, and towns do rely heavily on property taxes to finance services. An analysis in the current issue shows property taxes generate 72 percent of municipal revenues in the state. Problems surface when property values fall and towns raise tax rates to maintain public services, but hiking tax rates further erodes property values.

With a rising elderly population, demographic changes may be creating an imbalance between housing supply and demand as the baby-boom generation — which bought an unprecedented number of large single-family suburban homes — now seeks to downsize. At the same time, the state’s working age population is projected to decline due to historically low U.S. birth rates. Meanwhile, high levels of debt among college graduates have caused many to delay buying homes.

 

 

 

Connecticut towns fund nearly 58 percent of all K-12 education spending statewide — the highest dependence on local sources among the 50 states — and receive the fifth lowest state contribution to K-12 education (33.9 percent) and the 8th lowest federal contribution (8.6 percent). In an analysis for this issue of the UConn publication, senior policy fellow Orlando Rodriquez with New Haven-based Connecticut Voices for Children analyzes a tax credit for local property taxes the state offers low income seniors to induce them not to leave the state.

 

 HARTFORD — The General Assembly’s Commerce Committee is considering two bills to help companies understand and comply with state regulations without fearing punitive fines if they make a first-time mistake and then fix the issue promptly.

S.B. 759 calls on the departments of Economic & Community Development, Energy & Environmental Protection and Public Health, to waive fines and penalties for "a first time violation of a noncriminal regulation when such business takes full remedial measures" within 30 days. This proposal creates objective standards by which the agencies may allow a commonsense waiver of any penalty for first-time minor violations.

H.B 1006 proposes that regulatory agencies and those they regulate will have a clear understanding of what authority is being applied when an agency takes an action to restrict business activity, or brings an enforcement against a business.

In addition to helping businesses better understand the laws and regulations to which they are subject, this proposal is intended to send a message to the private sector and the nation that Connecticut is serious about changing its reputation as a difficult place to do business with an onerous regulatory climate.