Tuesday, October 4, 2016

October 2016

Monday October 31, 2016 (Thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: Connecticut shelves plans to increase natural gas capacity, for now;
with influx of homeless young adults, Long Island shelters brace for winter; and, Southampton Hospital bans political debate for heart patients.

Although Connecticut is shelving plans to increase natural gas capacity for power plants, officials insisted Thursday they are still committed to converting more consumers to natural gas with plans to build about 900 more miles of gas mains over the next decade. This will make natural gas available to about 300,000 additional homes. Experts have warned this will limit the ability to meet growing demand.

“We are moving forward with large and small scale plans to convert users to natural gas,’’ Dennis Schain, a Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) spokesman, said. Seven bids to increase natural gas pipeline capacity were submitted to the DEEP. “While the evaluation of bids was underway at DEEP, administrative decisions and a court ruling in other New England states limited the likelihood that the costs of projects would be shared among a substantial portion of the region’s ratepayers,” Schain said. 

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Supreme Court is currently reviewing a lawsuit against the state filed two years ago by the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association (CEMA) that represents heating oil dealers, alleging it violated environmental laws when it approved the natural gas line expansion without an environmental impact study. Chris Herb, president of CEMA, said while the lawsuit and the power plant RFPs are “separate issues, I am glad that the DEEP made the decision to drop this bad idea,” calling it a victory for ratepayers.

A lower court judge dismissed CEMA’S lawsuit. The association appealed to the Supreme Court. Oral arguments in the case were heard earlier this month. 

Last winter, Maureen’s Haven, a Riverhead-based nonprofit that serves the homeless, experienced an unexpected flood of a new type of guest: young adults. Just under half the people assisted by the nonprofit were under age 25, said executive director Maryann Gensler. And half of those roughly two dozen people were younger than 21.

“Where am I going to send these kids?” Ms. Gensler wondered at the time. The county and the network of shelters that work with Maureen’s Haven on the North Fork are geared specifically toward helping homeless veterans and those with substance abuse problems. The unique needs of young people are more difficult to address. Ms. Gensler said: “They can go to the county shelter just like anyone else, but it’s not appropriate.”

Now, with cold weather about to blow into the area and local overnight homeless shelters set to open Nov. 1, caregivers are bracing for another influx of young homeless people.
Ms. Gensler attended a Southold Town Board meeting last Tuesday to take part in the annual discussion about how to divvy up the town’s community block development grants from the state. Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the town used to receive far more block grant money to distribute to various organizations, including Maureen’s Haven and Community Action Southold Town. However, this year, the grant was for just $30,000 — and only 15% was permitted to go to local nonprofit groups. The rest had to be used by the town itself for its own initiatives. Town government liaison Denis Noncarrow said the town has appealed to the state to allow more than 15% of the grant to be given to nonprofits since the total amount is so low. So far, the state has not responded, although Mr. Noncarrow is optimistic the request will be granted.

Ms. Gensler has also been calling for more support. Her organization already works with other organizations, like Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch, to place homeless youth in programs to get the help they need. But Timothy Hill, she said, is already at near-maximum capacity. Ms. Gensler said her organization is also in discussions with North Fork houses of worship to expand their five shelter locations to include a dedicated homeless youth center. But that idea is still in the earliest stages of consideration, she said. For now, local homeless groups will simply have to make do with the operations they have, Ms. Gensler concluded. “There just are no resources,” she said.

According to Newsday:
All debate of this year’s election was recently banned from the Southampton Hospital’s cardiopulmonary rehabilitation gym, said Jessica Swiatocha, the hospital's manager of cardiopulmonary rehabilitation. Bright pink signs now hang in the center that read: “Due to the fact that we have patients with heart conditions we can not allow political debates in the gym.”

Swiatocha says divisive political discussion has been stressing out some of her patients, all of whom are either recovering from heart surgery, have had a heart attack or suffer from congestive heart failure, she said.

“Stress has been proven to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease,” Swiatocha wrote in an email. “It can increase blood pressure, increase irregular heart rhythms, decrease immune response, increase anxiety and worsen insomnia. Because of this we like to keep our cardiac rehab a stress free zone. We do a lot of education to our patients on stress reduction and didn’t want to be preaching a low stress lifestyle in a high stress environment.”

Friday October 28, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers Gretchen Swanson, Neil Tolhurst, and Mike Merli.)

In tonight’s news: a new report details the high volume of uncontested political races this election in Connecticut; Access Health Connecticut readies for 2017 enrollment; PSEG Long Island warns customers of a new wave of phone scams; and No Nukes protesters in New York offer letter opposing subsidy.

Redrawing political lines won’t happen for another five years, but Common Cause released a new report this week that concluded previous redistricting efforts have created fewer choices for voters in this election. The report found that 33 million Americans will have no choice in congressional or state legislative races this year.

In Connecticut, 187 General Assembly seats are up for election on November 8 – 36 Senate seats and 151 House of Representatives seats. There are four state Senate seats with only one candidate running and another 42 House races with the same situation. All five U.S. Congressional races are contested, meaning that overall, 24 percent of the races in Connecticut are uncontested this year.

District lines are redrawn every 10 years following completion of the United States Census. The next United States Census will be conducted in 2020.

In Connecticut, if lawmakers can’t agree on how to draw the lines, they appoint a bipartisan commission of four Democrats and four Republicans. Those eight will then choose a ninth member if they can’t reach agreement. If they still can’t find agreement, the Supreme Court will appoint a special master to draw the lines.

Monthly premiums have increased an average of 25% and there are 21 fewer insurance plans to choose from on Connecticut’s insurance exchange. Still, Access Health CEO Jim Wadleigh remained hopeful yesterday about the future of the marketplace. Enrollment opens on November 1, and Wadleigh estimated they will enroll 115,000 to 125,000 customers this year. Last year about 116,000 residents signed up for plans, but only about 99,038 customers remain.

Wadleigh said traditionally they have a 15% attrition rate due to a myriad of reasons. Some customers get jobs that offer health insurance, or leave the state. Others may qualify for Medicaid. An estimated 53.8% of customers were terminated this year because they failed to pay their monthly premiums or provide the income verification documents needed to receive a subsidy.

There are more than 759,000 Connecticut residents currently receiving Medicaid, according to the Department of Social Services. Wadleigh said about 60% of its customers churn between exchange plans and Medicaid.

Consumers who already have plans on the exchange will be automatically re-enrolled in their plan if they don’t contact Access Health to change their plan. However, consumers who previously had plans with United HealthCare and HealthyCT will have to shop for new plans.  Last year, about 62.7% of consumers did not actively shop for a new plan and simply allowed the plan they had in 2015 to roll over.

PSEG Long Island urges customers to be alert to phone scams demanding immediate payment via a pre-paid card and threats to terminate service. The utility doesn't call to demand immediate payment and such calls should be reported to police and PSEG-LI.  Individuals pretending to be a PSEG Long Island employees call customers and tell them that without immediate payment via a pre-paid card, their service will be shut off.

PSEG vice president Dan Eichhorn said: “If you receive a call from anyone demanding immediate payment, do not give them any personal or account information, hang up the phone, and call the number listed on PSEG Long Island’s website and bills: 1-800-490-0025 and report scamming activity to your local police department.”

Before terminating service, PSEG-LI alerts customers in a number of ways: messages on bills, letters and phone calls.  The utility offers a number of payment options, and would never require a customer to use one specific type of payment.

PSEG Long Island is working with local and national law enforcement to investigate the matter and is also reaching out to its contacts at local community service agencies asking them to spread the word to their clients, the company said.

According to Albany Times-Union, yesterday a group of anti-nuclear activists delivered to Governor Andrew Cuomo a letter signed by more than 100 organizations. They urged him to rethink the Public Service Commission’s plan to use subsidies paid by utilities customers to continue operating three aging nuclear power plants in northern New York.

New York’s Public Service Commission approved a “clean energy standard” as part of the state’s new energy plan in August, emphasizing renewable and non-polluting energy sources. But as part of that plan, they also agreed to subsidize nuclear plants near Rochester and in Oswego County for twelve years. 

The plants, more than forty years old, are controlled by Chicago-based Exelon Corp. Opponents of the subsidies say Exelon will benefit from a subsidy that could cost New York utility customers seven point six billion dollars, at the rate of a few dollars a month. 

Because there are no carbon emissions, nuclear plants are viewed as a way to combat global warming, although the use radioactive material remains highly controversial. Cuomo and PSC experts have said the nuclear plants can amount to a fifth of the state’s energy production and are needed to meet goals for lowering greenhouse gases. 

Thursday October 27, 2016 (Thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: Katie Dykes, Connecticut energy policy strategist, to join the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority; health disparities will be discussed this weekend in Farmington; and, Southampton to add $100 surcharge to fines for rental violations.

Katie Dykes, a key voice on energy policy in Connecticut as a deputy commissioner at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, was nominated Thursday by Governor Dannel P. Malloy to serve as a commissioner of the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. “Katie has dedicated years toward providing strategic direction to Connecticut’s energy policy, and in particular her knowledge of the needs of Connecticut’s energy consumers and utility companies made her a natural fit for this position,” Malloy said.

If confirmed by the legislature, she will succeed Arthur H. House, who recently was picked to oversee cybersecurity for the state. Dykes, 39, of West Hartford would be one of three PURA regulators, presumably taking responsibility for the authority’s energy portfolio.

The authority regulates electricity, natural gas, water and telecommunication companies and is the franchising authority for the state’s cable television companies.Dykes is expected to better coordinate the strategic and regulatory sides of energy policy in a state that has some of the highest electricity costs in the nation.

She leaves DEEP as it is updating its comprehensive energy strategy. “I’ll be shifting from writing policy and strategy documents to collaborating with two other commissioners and a really talented staff at PURA,” Dykes said.

Organizers of the National Health Disparities Elimination Summit intend to bring stakeholders together to exchange information and resources, with the ultimate goal of eliminating health disparities among different populations.

The summit is scheduled for Saturday at UConn Health Center in Farmington and organized by the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Connecticut and the W. Montague Cobb/NMA Health Institute. The summit, sponsored by the Connecticut Legislative Black & Puerto Rican Caucus, will focus in particular on African-American and Latino health nationwide.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, senior advisor at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice & Community Revitalization Division, will be the keynote speaker. Ali is a founding member of the EPA Office of Environmental Justice and played a major role in forming many of the EPA’s programs on environmental justice and community revitalization. Ali also advises the White House on environmental and climate justice issues. He has been a speaker, trainer, and facilitator on social justice issues for more than 20 years. Other speakers include scientists, researchers, government officials, public health experts and community leaders from throughout Connecticut and around the country.

Participants will examine current examples of environmental challenges that contribute to poor health outcomes, and discuss ways to create a “national action plan/toolkit” to help alleviate those problems. Attendees will participate in various breakout sessions. Topics for those include environmental racism, asthma, gun violence in urban communities, the Affordable Care Act, access to healthcare, and others.

Newsday reports:
The Southampton Town Board voted 5-0 on Oct. 25 to pass a motion to add a $100 surcharge to penalties for rental property violations, such as illegal rentals and overcrowded dwellings. The motion stated that in addition to any fines imposed, those convicted of violating Chapter 270, Southampton Town’s rental property law, would be charged an additional $100, which would go toward the Community Housing Opportunity Fund to address a “critical need” for the town, according to the amendment language.

Southampton Assistant Town Attorney Kara Bak, who helped craft the language for the new amendment, said she noticed that there was not much money in the town’s community housing fund but that many rental permit violation cases were being handled in town court. Bak — who previously prosecuted town court violations — said she saw “a nexus between rental permits and affordable housing” that could provide a new revenue stream for the town’s housing issues.

According to the town attorney’s office, there have been 97 convictions on “No Rental Permit” charges made in Southampton Town Justice Court from January to Oct. 14. “There have been times where there have been a lot of rental violations,” Bak said.

Town officials have projected that under the new amendment, which must be approved by the state, as much as $1,000 a month could be netted for the housing fund through rental violations. Proceeds from the fund can be used for community housing units for residents with eligible income requirements, rehabilitating existing buildings and converting them for community housing use and counseling services and loans to first-time home buyers.

Tuesday, October 25 and Wednesday, October 26 will be posted as soon as they are available. 

Monday October 24, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: daycare subsidies for thousands on chopping block in Connecticut; Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy touts legislation that puts teeth in mental health parity; and, Judge lets New York State Farm Bureau step in to defend against farmworkers’ rights lawsuit.

Faced with a multi-million dollar deficit, state officials are considering the elimination of child-care subsidies for thousands of Connecticut families relying on it in order to work. Earlier this year the state suspended additional enrollment in the popular Care4Kids program, but the move did not reduce costs enough, administrators say. The new cutback, if enacted, would eliminate daycare help for up to 900 families each month, a decrease of 10,800 families over the year.

“That’s about all we have left at the moment,” said Linda Goodman, acting commissioner of the state Office of Early Childhood. “We have to get the caseload to a point of sustainability, whatever the budget is going to be. We have to be at the level we can support.” Reaching a sustainable caseload would require reducing the number of families that now participate in the program. Currently, 15,404 families are enrolled in Care4Kids, which provides child care subsidies that range from $38 to $320 per week.

Right now, anyone earning below 50% of the state’s median income is eligible for the program. For a single mom with two children, that’s $44,000. But the agency can only eliminate from its rolls those parents who are not receiving cash welfare or who are not teenagers.

Complicating the situation – and increasing costs – the governor’s budget office halted the Office of Early Childhood’s initial plan to begin reducing existing enrollment in the program. The reduction was set to be announced Monday. Chris McClure, a spokesman for the budget office, said they are “continuing to evaluate available options.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy said insurance companies are erecting “bureaucratic hurdles” to get around the 1996 mental health parity law, and this prevents millions of Americans from getting necessary care. Some of those hurdles include requiring a patient to fail first on certain drugs or requiring prior authorization for certain treatments. 

Murphy has been working on the Mental Health Reform Act for two years to remove those hurdles. The Act is sponsored by eight Republicans and eight Democrats and clarifies guidance to insurance companies about what constitutes a violation of the existing parity law. “Today, your health plan tells you, you have mental health insurance coverage, but you often run into so much red tape you can never access it,” Murphy said Monday at a Legislative Office Building press conference.  He said requiring pre-authorization for certain treatments or drugs would still be allowed under the legislation, but they can’t be more rigorous than procedures for the treatment of a physical condition. 

Dr. Peter Jacoby, chairman of Saint Mary’s emergency department, said there’s a shortage of psychiatric beds at almost all hospitals that often leave patients waiting in hallways on stretchers or stranded in emergency departments for hours or even days. There is also a lack of appropriate outpatient resources. 

But it’s not just a problem for emergency rooms. Dr. Frank Fortunati, medical director at Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital, said there is not an adequate number of providers enrolled with insurance companies to serve the population. “We routinely have trouble finding after care for patients discharged from the psychiatric hospital,” Fortunati said.

The Albany Times-Union reports: A state Supreme Court judge has ruled that the New York Farm Bureau may step in to defend against a lawsuit filed against the state over a law that the New York Civil Liberties Union contends violates farmworkers’ rights to organize. The October 14 ruling by Albany County Supreme Court Judge Richard McNally is to be followed by a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed in May.

“Farm Bureau has a century long history of advocating for New York agriculture, and the court’s decision will allow our grassroots organization to vigorously push back against labor activists who seek to impose their will on family farms across the state,” Farm Bureau President Dean Norton said in a statement on Monday. The NYCLU did not oppose intervention by the Farm Bureau.

The lawsuit centers on labor protections doled out in the 1930s at both the federal and state levels. The NYCLU says farmworkers were excluded from federal labor protections enacted as part of New Deal legislation at the behest of Southern Democrats. The state Labor Relations Act later excluded agricultural workers as well to conform to the federal law’s language. But the NYCLU contends that an amendment to the state Constitution approved in 1938 extends the right to organize to all workers, regardless of industry. The Farm Bureau contends that the exclusion of farm workers in state law is based on “decades of rational public policy and legal precedent.”

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he agreed with the NYCLU that the exclusion of farm workers from certain labor protections “is inconsistent with our constitutional principles.” His administration declined to defend the law in court.

Friday October 21, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers Gretchen Swanson, Neil Tolhurst, and Mike Merli.)

In the news tonight: FEMA rebuffs Governor Malloy’s appeal on crumbling foundations; new report finds Connecticut’s budget woes could mean higher municipal borrowing costs; New York State Department of Financial Services fines pension advance firm; and, Governor Cuomo and the Public Employees Federation strike a three-year deal.

Though it wasn’t an official reply, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesperson reiterated yesterday that the plight of homeowners with crumbling foundations does not appear to qualify for aid. The spokesperson said: “The crumbling foundation conditions experienced by individuals does not appear to constitute an emergency or major disaster. Rather, this appears to be a consumer product or construction safety issue, something which FEMA has previously not treated as constituting an emergency or major disaster incident as contemplated by the Stafford Act."

The Stafford Act authorizes FEMA to provide aid to state and local governments and to individuals and businesses affected by a major disaster or catastrophe.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy wrote FEMA Craig Fugate on Wednesday for help assessing the damage caused by concrete used in foundations that contained pyrrhotite, a mineral that corrodes when exposed to water. Malloy said that the damage caused by the faulty foundations in Connecticut could cost anywhere from $100 million to $1 billion to repair, depending on the number of homes and commercial buildings affected.

He wants FEMA to establish an office in Connecticut to help test as many as 34,130 homes that are potentially at risk. FEMA turned down Malloy’s request in April, stating the crumbling foundations appeared to be a consumer product or construction safety issue. Still, the Governor’s administration remains hopeful.

A major Wall Street credit rating agency warned yesterday that Connecticut’s state budget woes and “dim economic growth” could make it more costly for its cities and towns to get credit. In a new report titled “Connecticut Budgetary Pressures and Dim Economic Growth Dampen Local Government Credit,” S&P Global Ratings cited high property tax burdens, potential cuts in municipal aid and rising pension costs in municipal budgets as additional factors that could boost borrowing costs or otherwise make it harder for communities to get credit.

The report states that Connecticut municipalities still rely too heavily on property tax receipts as their primary revenue source, and that the burden puts them at a “competitive disadvantage.”

Yesterday’s report came on the heels of downgrades for Connecticut’s capital city by two of Wall Street’s four major credit rating agencies. S&P lowered Hartford’s bond rating on September 22, and Moody’s Investors Service followed on October 7.

The Department of Financial Services has entered into a consent order with Future Income Payments (FIP) and its owner Scott Kohn, requiring them to return ill-gotten funds to consumers, pay a $500,000 fine, and ban them from offering pension advance loans in New York State. The company will be required to forgive certain debts, make refunds to other pensioners and install a Department of Financial Services selected third-party administrator to oversee consumer refunds and forgiveness loans.

Two hundred and eighty two New Yorkers sold off part of their pensions for an immediate payment that amounted to pennies on the dollar. FIP marketed its product as a way for pensioners to get cash quickly.

Financial Services Superintendent Maria Vullo said: "Consumers in need of emergency cash should consider conventional bank loans or home equity loans rather than turning to on-line lending schemes marketed with too-good-to-be-true promises.” [Superintendent Vullo also said:] “Future Income Payments charged saddled retirees with even more debt after they entered these contracts. They loaned 282 New Yorkers $2.3 million and projected it would earn more than a 250 percent profit.”

DFS urges anyone who suspects that they have been the victim of a pension advance scheme to contact DFS’s Consumer Help Line at (800) 342-3736 or log onto www.dfs.ny.gov for assistance.

According to Albany Times-Union, on Wednesday New York’s Public Employees Federation (PEF) and the Cuomo administration announced a tentative three-year labor agreement. The deal calls for workers to receive a 2% pay increase in the current fiscal year and each of the next two. PEF’s previous contract negotiation, in 2011, brought about the ouster of former President Ken Brynien. His replacement, Susan Kent, was also removed.

PEF’s membership rejected an initial contract offer in 2011, but approved a revised four-year contract with three years of zero raises and a 2% increase in the last year. 

Governor Cuomo said in a statement: “Public workers play a vital role in the function of New York…their outstanding contributions continue to move this state forward. The new contract strikes a balance” between fair treatment of public servants and fiscal commitment to taxpayers.

Healthcare costs continue to be a concern on both sides. In a statement, the governor’s office said, “Both the state and PEF agree to work together on a plan to reduce out-of-control healthcare costs. Other elements of the contract will be released shortly.” The new 2016 contract must be approved by PEF’s Executive Board and ratified by membership.

Thursday October 20, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: Connecticut Governor reports that there’s a budget deficit, but it’s really, really small; Connecticut lost 5,200 jobs last month as state layoffs took a toll; and, new medical marijuana pills, first of their kind, to be sold at Riverhead dispensary.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reported a minuscule state budget deficit Thursday —  projecting a $6 million shortfall in state government’s $17.9 billion General Fund. But while the administration appeared almost defiant, conceding a shortfall that matched only a fraction of competing deficit forecasts, Republican legislative leaders charged Malloy continues to ignore Connecticut’s fiscal problems.

“We are projecting a minor $5.7 million operating deficit,” Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes, Malloy’s budget chief, wrote in his official monthly forecast to Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo. “Given that our estimates reflect information only through the first quarter of this fiscal year, this projection does not represent a material deviation from the budget plan.” Barnes said that state tax receipts are down about $77 million, but said this has been offset entirely by a one-time legal settlement worth $80 million to the state.

Another fiscal problem that the Malloy administration recognized at this time was a $5 million payment the state owes as part of a settlement with state employee unions over layoffs imposed illegally by Republican Gov. John G. Rowland in 2003. Still, it comes just six weeks after the administration reported a fiscal hole 23 times larger than this one in a memo to dozens of agency heads.

The $6 million shortfall the administration reported Thursday — an amount equal to 1/31st of 1 percent of the General Fund — is comparable to a rounding error in the scope of the $19.7 billion overall state budget. It was less than 1/14th the size of the $78 million deficit reported last week by the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis.
More importantly it is only 1/23rd the size of the $133 million revenue shortfall that Malloy’s own budget office warned dozens of agency heads about on Sept. 6. But when the administration filed its official monthly projection to Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo on Sept. 20, it opted not to report the projected revenue hole.

The $133 million revenue gap quickly sparked Republican charges that Malloy was hiding a deficit to help his fellow Democrats campaigning this fall to maintain majorities in the state House and Senate.

State employee layoffs began to take their toll on Connecticut’s job market in September even as the unemployment rate improved Thursday. The Department of Labor reported that Connecticut lost 5,200 jobs last month, including 2,900 from state government. The department also revised its August report from 300 jobs gained to 300 positions lost.

Still, Connecticut’s jobless rate fell from 5.6% to 5.4% That’s because, despite the job losses, the state’s labor force – which reflects both the employed as well as those seeking work – rose by almost 2,000 people. The unemployment rate is a ratio based in part on the size of the labor force. “Connecticut saw job losses in September for the third month in a row, and our three-month average of total non-farm jobs saw its first decline this year,” said Andy Condon, director of the labor department’s Office of Research. “However, market signs are mixed as the state’s unemployment rate continues to fall.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration and the Judicial Branch combined have ordered more than 1,050 layoffs since mid-April, with about 80% of those job cuts coming in the Executive Branch. Those reductions were part of a plan Malloy and the legislature embraced this spring to balance the 2016-17 state budget without tax increases.

Connecticut has added 5,000 jobs this calendar year and 12,800 jobs over the past 12 months. The latter figure represents growth of just 0.8%. And the September unemployment rate is 0.01% worse than it was one year ago. Connecticut now has recovered 90,800 or 76.2% of the 119,100 jobs lost in the last recession, which ended in February 2010. This lags both the national average as well as the recovery in most states.

A new form of medical marijuana pills – the first of their kind in the nation – will now be available at Riverhead’s medical marijuana dispensary on East Main Street.The pills allow patients to take more precise dosages and eliminate the need for measuring. This is especially helpful for patients whose disabilities affect their fine motor skills, such as those with multiple sclerosis or epilepsy. “This is an important development because it will make administering medical marijuana far more convenient and more accessible for patients with fine motor control limitations,” said Evelyn Bubb, a representative of Columbia Care.

Columbia Care opened its Riverhead dispensary in January. It is the only one in Suffolk County and one of just two on Long Island. The organization is one of the nation’s largest manufacturers and distributors of medical marijuana, and it is one of five companies in New York State that is legally permitted to grow and sell medical marijuana.

Medical marijuana is currently only available to patients with a limited number of severe, debilitating or life-threatening conditions, such as cancer, HIV and AIDS, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

Under state law, the drug is only available in non-smokable forms, including vaporizable concentrates and sublingual tinctures. Columbia care says the launch of new controlled-dose capsules will make the medication more accessible and convenient to many patients.
The powder-filled capsules are currently patent-pending and do not carry risks of leakage, according to Columbia Care’s announcement. Next year, Columbia Care plans to make the capsule available in its other locations nationwide.

Wednesday October 19, 2016 (Thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: Senate president files election complaint against business lobby in Connecticut; fundraising for GOP congressional candidates in CT hits new low; and, medication take-back event collects 91 pounds of prescription drugs, another event planned this week.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney is charging, in an election complaint, that the Connecticut Business & Industry Association is illegally coordinating with Republicans in this year’s election.Looney, a state senator from New Haven, says the largest business organization in the state sent invitations to Democratic lawmakers and one candidate asking them to visit CBIA member businesses in their districts and then disinvited them hours later. Looney said Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, Sen. Joseph Crisco, Sen. Mae Flexer, and challenger Timothy Bowles were all invited and then disinvited to visit the businesses by CBIA Vice President and General Counsel Bonnie Stewart. He noted that CBIA is financially supporting Republican opponents in all those races.

CBIA has been public about its decision to spend $415,000 on 15 races this year — 4 in the Senate and 11 in the House. While federal law allows groups like CBIA to spend money on clean election candidates, it doesn’t allow them to coordinate with those campaigns. In his Oct. 7 complaint letter to Michael J. Brandi, executive director and general counsel of the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC), Looney states there was “improper coordination between CBIA and several campaigns.” 

CBIA cited “a technical error” that led to the emails going to campaigns that shouldn’t have received them. Looney said he’s unable to know whether the Republicans CBIA is supporting were also “disinvited.” Looney alleges his Senators would be injured because Republican candidates might go on the local business tour and leave the impression that the Democratic Senators chose not to be there when in reality they were “disinvited.” 

It’s unlikely given the backlog of SEEC complaints that this one would be investigated by Nov. 8, but Looney asked for it to be expedited. Joseph Brennan, president and CEO of CBIA, said “CBIA believes that the complaint filed with the State Elections Enforcement Commission by the president pro tem of the state Senate is without merit.”

Donors are shunning the five Republican campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives in Connecticut, setting a new mark for fundraising futility that has left the GOP with little presence on television. FCC records show the only U.S. House candidate to reserve air time on a Connecticut television station was a Democrat, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty of the 5th District, who began airing a testimonial Tuesday from a Gold Star father. She enjoys an 18-1 fundraising advantage over her challenger, Clay Cope, the Republican first selectman of Sherman, Ct.

But a spokesman for John T. Shaban, the Republican trying to unseat U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th, said Shaban has bought time and is running commercials on WTNH, the ABC affiliate in New Haven, and on cable television. He acknowledged, however, that GOP donors are staying on the sidelines to an unprecedented degree. “The big thing we’re finding is a lot of folks in our neck of the woods are concerned about the Donald Trump factor,” said state Rep. Jason Perillo, who is managing Shaban’s campaign.

Collectively, the Republican congressional campaigns have raised barely $300,000 through the end of September, according to third quarter finance reports filed over the weekend, compared to $7.1 million for the five Democrats, all of whom are incumbents.

In an effort to help curb rising prescription drug abuse across the country, the Riverhead Community Awareness Program, or CAP, is hosting a medication take-back event on Saturday, October 22. CAP is a non-profit community-based organization founded in 1979 by volunteers to address growing problems caused by alcohol and other drugs within the Riverhead community and school districts. The group also provides prevention programs, counseling and community coalition services. 

Last weekend, CAP collected 91 pounds of unused and expired prescription medications from local residents, and another take-back event is planned for this coming Saturday in the lobby of the Peconic Bay Medical Center from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. A 24/7 medication box is also available in the lobby of the Riverhead Police Department at 210 Howell Avenue. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing drug problem nationwide. Prescription drugs are likely to be seen as “less risky” than other street drugs because they are prescribed by doctors and used as medication, according to CAP. They are easier to obtain than street drugs, are highly addictive and can lead to opiate overdose, especially among teenagers. Prescription drug abuse is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States and causes more deaths than all illegal drugs combined. 

Tuesday October 18, 2016   (Thanks to WPKN volunteers Trace Alford and Chris Cadra.)

In the news tonight: judge dismisses Sandy Hook parents’ lawsuit against Remington; Connecticut GOP calls for budget hearing, restoring comptroller’s oversight; direct care workers rally in Albany for living wage; and Suffolk Bancorp shareholders approve merger with People’s United Financial.

Hartford Courant reports:
A Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit against a weapons manufacturer filed by several parents of shooting victims in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The families of 10 victims filed the lawsuit in January 2015 against Remington Outdoor Co., the maker of the Bushmaster rifle used by shooter Adam Lanza.

In her ruling, Judge Barbara Bellis agreed with Remington’s attorneys that the lawsuit fell within the broad immunity provided to gun manufacturers and dealers by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. The families' attorney Josh Koskoff said his clients will appeal.

The lawsuit also named gun distributor Camfour Holding LLC and Riverview Sales, the store where Lanza’s mother bought the AR-15. The judge dismissed the lawsuit against them too.

Connecticut Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Representative Elizabeth Esty issued a joint statement vowing to continue the fight to repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.

Connecticut Republican legislative leaders called for immediate hearings on the state budget deficit controversy and reform of a little-known law that compels the comptroller to confirm the governor’s budget’s projections. House Minority Leader Themis Klarides says the Malloy administration has an “obligation to present an accurate assessment of the state’s fiscal health” and the administration provided “misleading information.” 

The administration wrote in its official budget report to Comptroller Kevin Lembo that the current budget was in balance and the revenue forecast remains “consistent with the budget plan.” But nonpartisan analysts estimated the General Fund for this fiscal year is about $78 million in deficit, a shortfall of nearly 0.5%. The administration later explained the conflicting data by saying it used “extremely conservative” revenue estimates. 

Governor Malloy downplayed the deficit forecast and charged Republicans with political grandstanding in an election season.

A spokesperson for the governor said the Republican budget proposal for the 2016-17 fiscal year would face a $112 million shortfall. That proposal was issued on April 25, before the administration and nonpartisan analysts completed their final revenue forecast of the regular 2016 legislative session.

Albany Times-Union reports:
Hundreds of direct care workers rallied at the state Capitol Monday, calling on Governor Cuomo to allocate $45 million in the state budget for raises.

Statewide, the more than 100,000 caregivers feed, clean, and generally help disabled New Yorkers. Despite the demands and training required for direct care, workers are frequently paid just above minimum wage. The fear is that in light of the recently passed increase in the state’s minimum wage, many care workers will switch to retail or fast food jobs. The workers say they should get more than the minimum wage, given the demands of their jobs and the need to prevent high turnover.

Lawmakers from across the Capital Region joined in the call for more money. Rally participants cited a survey showing that competition from other employers has led to a 10% vacancy rate among centers for the disabled.

The state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities offered a statement, noting that the minimum wage increases will help many direct care workers.

Suffolk Bancorp shareholders overwhelmingly approved the merger with People’s United Financial Inc. The proposed merger was approved last week by a vote of more than 80% of the shares eligible to vote. At least 70% was needed.

Shareholders also approved, on a non-binding, advisory basis, the compensation certain Suffolk Bancorp executive officers may receive as a result of the merger. Several key officers will receive large cash and equity payments. Federal regulators still must approve the merger. Once finalized, Suffolk Bancorp will merge into People’s United Financial Inc., and Suffolk County National Bank will merge into People’s United Bank.

People’s United president and CEO Jack Barnes said growth in the New York area remains one of the Bridgeport-based bank’s highest priorities. The bank acquired the Bank of Smithtown in 2010 and Citizen’s Bank in 2012. 

Both parties said they hope to complete the merger by the end of the year.

Monday October 17, 2016 (With thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation files suit against Connecticut for $610 Million over land seizures; AAA Northeast Revises Its Decision To Stop Serving The Public; and, Court ruling could block future building on Suffolk farmland.

The Schaghticoke Tribal Nation filed a lawsuit on Friday in Hartford Superior Court against Connecticut seeking $610 million in damages for 2,000 acres of land taken by the State between 1801 and 1918. The tribe, which has unsuccessfully fought for federal recognition for years, claims it was never compensated for this land.

Austin Tighe, lead counsel with the Texas law firm of Nix, Patterson and Roach, said the $610 million in estimated damages is based on four land transactions and the value of the land at the time it was taken. Tighe said his firm agreed to represent the tribe in this case because of their meticulous record keeping, and that it’s unclear if the State has documentation from these transactions. Tighe stated that what is clear is that both the U.S. and Connecticut Constitutions require states to fairly compensate for land taken in this manner. 

Schaghticoke Tribal Nation Chief Richard Velky said the tribe is only interested in a “fair and just financial settlement for the land that was unconstitutionally taken.” He said that it’s not about federal recognition or building a casino.  Former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, who opposed Federal recognition for the tribe in 2004 and 2005 when he was a U.S. Senator from Connecticut, is assisting the Tribe in this litigation because he feels it is his second chance “to do right by them.” 

A spokeswoman for Attorney General George Jepsen said that they are reviewing the complaint “and will respond at the appropriate time in court.” 

The AAA Northeast motor club, which told the state earlier this month it would no longer be able to serve the general public, revised its position Thursday and agreed to continue providing licensing services to the general public through the end of the year. The announcement comes after Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy threatened legal action against AAA Northeast for failing to uphold a 60-day termination provision.

The motor club said the increase in the number of public customers has harmed its ability to service its dues-paying members.

“Working together with legislators and state officials, AAA has agreed to serve all Connecticut drivers, beginning Monday October 17, 2016, and continuing through the end of the year while we discuss how the DMV partnership might be reshaped to meet the needs of both sides,” AAA Northeast President and CEO Mark Shaw said.

Malloy said he appreciated the company’s willingness to “join us at the table and discuss how to continue to serve the best interest of Connecticut drivers.” Malloy said: “The continuation of this working partnership between AAA and the DMV will benefit both AAA members and non-members alike. I look forward to our ongoing, future conversations regarding a longer-term arrangement.”

Newsday reports:
Future expanded use of Suffolk County farmland set aside for preservation with public funds could be blocked by a recent state court ruling that rejected county laws that allowed greenhouses, winery wedding halls and other structures on the protected property.

The additional uses, which include commercial solar farms, storage warehouses and other structures that some consider essential to modern agriculture, were approved by the Suffolk County Legislature on properties for which Suffolk has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase “development rights.” Hundreds of Suffolk farmers have sold their right to develop farmland while retaining ownership under a 1970s-era law aimed at preserving farms.

In 2010 and 2013, the legislature approved expanded uses of protected properties, requiring approval by a county farmland committee before such uses can go forward. The program is paid for through a portion of the 0.25 percent county sales tax that goes to protect drinking water. But in a ruling that has set off alarms in the East End farming community, State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Whelan last month said the later resolutions went beyond the intent of the original land preservation referendum by illegally allowing “structures” that constituted a “substantial intrusion” on public rights. The ruling declared the 2010 and 2013 amendments “null and void,” and of “no further effect,” thus barring permits and hardship exemptions under the law.

Suffolk has spent $260.8 million to preserve 10,636 acres of farmland, most in Riverhead and Southold. Towns and nonprofit groups have preserved another 8,753 acres. The county’s goal is to preserve an estimated 30,000 of the county’s total 39,000 acres of farmland.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the county would appeal the ruling, which he said would “effectively gut the farmland preservation program. If farmers can’t do the things necessary to run a successful operation, we can’t have farming here anymore.” 

The ruling would not affect development that has already taken place on county-protected land, said Dick Amper, executive director of the Pine Barrens Society, which brought the original suit. Amper said the new uses go far beyond what the original farmland preservation law intended. “There’s a difference between a farm stand where you get corn and a catering establishment where you hold your daughter’s wedding,” Amper said.

Friday October 14, 2016 (Thanks to WPKN volunteers Gretchen Swanson and Mike Merli.)

In tonight's news: College Board hits pause button on Community College tuition hike; Connecticut unions tell court that the state needs to negotiate privatization; New York State’s JCOPE releases draft lobbying funding regulations; and, voter registration deadlines arrive for New York and Connecticut.

Thousands of Connecticut community college students got some good news Thursday – there won’t be another tuition and fee hike in their immediate future.

The Board of Regents’ finance panel was slated to act on a plan that that would have raised costs for community college students who take more than 12 credit hours, to help balance the state college system’s budget.

Currently, community college students who pay full-time tuition can take up to 18 credit hours. A proposal that the regents’ finance panel is considering would charge students $150 in tuition and $74 in mandatory fees for each credit they take over 12. A student who took 18 credit hours would be charged an extra $1,344 over the current cost of $2,084 a semester, a 64.5% increase.

Yesterday, two Connecticut unions representing workers at the Department of Developmental Services filed a lawsuit alleging the state cannot move forward with privatizing group homes without negotiating first with the unions.

The Connecticut State Employees Association, SEIU Local 2001 and New England Health Care Employees Union District 1199 sought an injunction in Hartford Superior Court to stop the privatization from moving forward until negotiations are completed.

Department of Developmental Services Commissioner Moma Murray announced in August that the state was moving forward with a plan to convert 30 group homes to private operation by January 1, 2017. The agency also closed two regional centers in Meriden and Stratford.
The plan is expected to save the agency $42 million in 2017 and $70 million in 2018.

According to Albany Times-Union, on Thursday New York State’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics proposed two new sets of regulations. One rule broadens the scope of activities that must be disclosed by lobbyists. It greatly lowers thresholds lobbying groups must hit to have to disclose donors. The other rule, controversially, requires more disclosure from charitable groups that donate to lobbying efforts.  The proposal expands lobbying to include efforts like setting up a meeting between a lawmaker and lobbyist, not just directly lobbying a lawmaker; and clarifies definitions of “grassroots lobbying.” 

The new rules aim to close loopholes and capture more information about targets of lobbying activities and the real clients of lobbyists, not just third parties and intermediaries who contract with lobbyists; and also encompasses the use of technology in lobbying campaigns.

This is the first time in New York that such comprehensive regulation of lobbying has been presented in this form. Commission Executive Director Seth H. Agata said: “These regulations will ensure that the public has access to more and better information. We want to hear from as many voices as possible.” 

Public comments are welcome before November 21, 2016 and should be directed to Martin Levine, email martin.levine@jcope.ny.gov.

If you live in New York State the deadline for registering to vote is today, Friday October 14 although, you can still register in person at the Board of Elections office on Saturday October 15 from 12 pm – 9:00 pm.

 The Suffolk County Board of Elections is located at 700 Yaphank Ave, Yaphank, New York.

The deadline for voter registration in Connecticut is November 1.  

More information is available at sots.ct.gov

Thursday October 13, 2016 (Thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: nonpartisan analysts say Connecticut budget is $78 Million in deficit; Connecticut Comptroller Kevin Lembo asks Malloy administration to explain conflicting budget projections; ‘Acutely hazardous’ materials found at West Hills County Park; and “State of the Aquifer” report provides analysis of Long Island’s water supply.

Connecticut’s state budget is running a deficit — albeit a small one — the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis reported Thursday. While the $77.9 million deficit represents just under 0.5% of the General Fund, it confirms longstanding charges by Republican legislative leaders that the budget Governor Dannel P. Malloy and his fellow Democrats in the legislature’s majority adopted last May is out of balance. Thursday’s report also potentially places significant pressure on Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo, who must issue the last forecast on the state budget that will come before the November 8 elections.

Though the Office of Fiscal Analysis report outlines $100.6 million in red ink for the General Fund – $24 million in net revenue loss and $76.6 million in cost overruns – the fund was written to run $22.7 million in the black, leaving a new net deficit projection of $77.9 million.

“We stand by our (Sept. 20) projections and will update them as the law requires in a week,” Malloy spokesman Chris McClure said. “While we might disagree with OFA on their assumptions, the simple reality is that we agree with them on more than 99% of an $18 billion (General Fund.) One thing we know for sure is that no one – Democrats, Republicans, or non-partisan staff – have ever accurately predicted revenue or expenditures within 1% this early in the fiscal year. In other words, everyone will keep projecting, and we’ll do what’s necessary to keep our budget in balance and end the year in the black.”

Connecticut State Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo has asked Governor Dannel P. Malloy’s administration to explain why it withheld revenue estimates from his office last month that would show a $133 million deficit in the current budget. Two weeks after a September 6 memo the administration wrote to agency heads referencing downgraded revenues, it wrote in its formal budget projections to Lembo that “our revenue forecast remains consistent with the budget plan.”

In a letter to Malloy’s budget director, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes, Lembo wrote: “The contradicting forecasts deserve an explanation in order to preserve confidence in the state’s official statements.”

In response to Lembo’s letter, Barnes said that: “It has been our consistent practice to provide the comptroller with OPM’s best judgment regarding the status of the current budget each month, and last month was no exception. We monitor revenues on a daily basis and regularly consider the impacts of economic and financial events and trends on our near- and long-term revenues.” Barnes also said that the letter to agency heads “was based on a scenario [of] extremely conservative revenues. It is essential that the governor have a variety of significant budget reduction options to consider as he develops a budget recommendation for the coming biennium. The forecast we used was appropriate to that goal.”

The comptroller, the state’s chief fiscal watchdog, is required by law to issue a monthly budget forecast, and must decide whether to certify the fiscal projections issued  by the governor. His next report is due November 1.

Newsday reports:
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said on Thursday that hundreds of truckloads of “acutely hazardous” material were dumped at a Suffolk County park, causing “an even more serious environmental nightmare” than the Roberto Clemente Park dumping scheme.

The dumping, which prosecutors believe began in October 2015 and continued through August, at West Hills County Park in Huntington Town took place at the Sweet Hills Riding Center — a horse stable in Melville that leases the park from the county — and is an average of 3.5 feet to 6 feet deep, Spota said at a news conference at his Hauppauge office.

Known carcinogens, hydrocarbons and metals were found in the debris, in addition to pesticides, he said. Six “acutely hazardous” substances — pesticide components that have been banned since the 1980s — were found in the debris, which appeared processed,  and is believed to have come from New York City.

No charges have been filed, Spota said. And while no suspects have been publicly identified by the district attorney’s office, Spota said “we have identified a number of participants” in the dumping scheme. “I would anticipate we will probably be identifying others,” he said.

A report published last week by the Long Island Commission for Aquifer Protection, entitled the “State of the Aquifer,” provides a comprehensive analysis of the current state of Long Island’s water supply.

The report answers questions about pollution levels, major threats, depletion and how to protect the Island’s sole source of drinking water for its eight million residents. Other issues include the impacts of rising sea levels, excessive pumping and saltwater contamination. 

Commission members will present the report for public review and input at hearings this month, and an airing of the report was scheduled for this evening in the County Center in Riverhead. 

The Long Island Commission for Aquifer Protection is a bi-county entity formed in 2013 to address both quality and quantity issues facing Long Island’s aquifer system and to advocate for a coordinated, regional approach to groundwater resources management. 

Wednesday October 12, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: Feds say East Hartford plane crash was ‘intentional’; Connecticut among five safest states for gun violence; and, New York state Education Department extends comment period on Common Core revisions.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday an initial investigation of Tuesday’s plane crash in East Hartford “indicates the crash is the result of an intentional act.” The NTSB, usually the lead investigative agency in an accident involving trains or planes or other modes of public transportation, said it is “in the process of transferring the lead for the investigation from NTSB to the FBI.”

The Piper PA 34 crashed around 3:40 p.m. on Main Street as it was on a final approach to Hartford-Brainard Airport, near the Pratt & Whitney facility in East Hartford. Aboard was a flight instructor, Arian Prevalla, and his student, identified as Feras M. Freitekh, 28. Freitekh was killed in the crash and Prevalla badly injured.

News reports have said that Prevalla told investigators the crash was not an accident.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told reporters in Hartford he was briefed on the crash, but he would defer all question on the investigation to the FBI. He cautioned the public to wait for details, but he acknowledged the speculation that is understandable in the age of terrorism.

Malloy said, “As a nation, we’ve all had to adjust to a new reality. When events such as this occur, we recognize that people almost automatically wonder if someone meant to do us harm? We must exercise caution about jumping to conclusions before discovering or considering all of the facts.”

The Connecticut Post reports:
Nearly four years after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that claimed the lives of 20 school children and six staff members, a new national study on gun violence ranked Connecticut among the five safest states.

The report by the Center for American Progress rates Connecticut 45th on its list of most dangerous places for gun violence. New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Hawaii also ranked lower on the list, with Massachusetts listed as the safest. Louisiana, Alaska and Mississippi were the most dangerous. The report says that firearms-related deaths were significantly lower in states that had passed laws to ban assault weapons and require trigger locks or the safe storage of guns. 

During a Wednesday morning conference call with reporters and officials from the Washington DC-based Center, Governor Dannell P. Molloy said that Connecticut would be even safer if all states would prohibit gun sales without background checks. This would decrease the flow of weapons that migrate into the state. Malloy said: “In many of the cases where violence plays out in Connecticut, we find the gun was purchased in a state that has loopholes that we don’t have in our state. We have the second toughest laws, and we are the fifth safest state with respect to shootings.”

Chelsea Parsons, Vice President of guns and crime policy, prepared the report for the Center for American Progress. She said: “Our analysis shows that gun laws are a really important factor for lawmakers to consider. We urge policy makers to enact common-sense gun laws.”

The Albany Times-Union reports:
The New York state Education Department is giving the public more time to comment on proposed revisions to New York’s Common Core learning standards, citing high public interest. Individuals and groups will have until Nov. 14 — an extra 10 days — to comment.

Since the draft standards were released on Sept. 21, the department has received feedback from more than 1,205 respondents, with 635 commenting on the English language arts standards and 570 commenting on the math, said the department.

The proposed revisions follow a yearlong effort by the state to quell parent and teacher concerns around the standards, which critics have assailed as age-inappropriate for younger students and confusing in some areas. They include a stronger focus on fiction reading and boosting interaction in prekindergarten to second grades, among other changes.
While the department has characterized the proposed changes as “substantive,” critics pointed out that many of the changes were tiny tweaks to language or moving a standard up a grade.

To review and comment on the proposed revisions, visit nysed.gov/aimhighny.

Tuesday October 11, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: budget deficit disclosed to Connecticut agencies last month; report finds that many families are still struggling in Connecticut; anti-bias group seeks to build bridges in Riverhead with open community meeting;and, exotic animal ‘Amnesty Day’ set for Saturday in Smithtown.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration last month warned dozens of state agency heads of a significant shortfall in the current Connecticut budget, but continues to officially report that finances remain in balance. The $133 million revenue shortfall disclosed to agency heads on September 6 was excluded 14 days later from the latest official monthly budget forecast submitted to Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo.

And while the administration said Monday the September 6 memo used “extremely conservative” revenue estimates while directing agency heads to be frugal, Republican legislative leaders amplified their charges that the Democratic governor is hiding red ink until after the November elections. When asked about the $133 million revenue shortfall reported to agency heads — but not his office — on Sept. 6, Lembo issued a one-sentence written statement: “We will look into this latest report.”

The comptroller must decide each month whether to certify the governor’s budget projection, and traditionally does. Lembo, who has certified all of Malloy’s reports this fiscal year, has nonetheless expressed concerns in writing about both tax revenues and challenges in cutting costs. The administration must file one more budget forecast before the election, due on Oct. 20. Lembo must make his decision whether to certify that forecast on Nov. 1.

Despite Connecticut’s modest economic growth, the number of families struggling to cover basic household costs has increased since 2010. On Sunday, United Way released the ALICE Report, which attempts to identify households living above the poverty level but below the basic cost of living.
ALICE stands for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed, which describes a family of four as having an income below $70,788 and $22,656 for a single person. 

“The federal poverty rate is commonly regarded as inadequate for measuring the true scope of financial hardship in this country,” United Way of Western Connecticut CEO Kim Morgan said. “The ALICE Report shows that the federal poverty rate is woefully inadequate to support an individual, let alone a family.”

Minority households, seniors and families with children are the most at-risk groups to fall below the ALICE threshold, with 57% of minorities versus 31% of whites represented. Seniors also make up a large percentage because social security brings people above the poverty line but keeps them below the cost of living. Connecticut’s aging population will likely affect the numbers of ALICE households. Families with children face challenges because of childcare and healthcare costs. Government assistance is targeted towards the poorest families, so many in need don’t qualify.

However, there is some good news. In Connecticut, high paying jobs have increased, and more than half pay over $20 per hour.  “I think Connecticut is in one of the best positions of the states we’ve studied to address these problems,” United Way of Connecticut CEO Richard Porth said.

Hoping to open a community dialogue on the subject of bias and discrimination, Riverhead’s Anti-Bias Task Force is hosting an open meeting next Monday evening in Aquebogue. The meeting will be moderated by civil rights attorney Cathryn Harris-Marchese of the law firm of Frederick Brewington.

“We’re doing it because of the climate we’re experiencing right now,” said task force chairperson Connie Lassandro. “We’re trying to get a sense from the community about whatever issues are of concern and we thought it would be a good chance to have a meaningful discussion,” she said.

Lassandro said she sent emails to community and civic groups, churches and service clubs in Riverhead. She’s also invited officials from various government and law enforcement agencies. “I’m hoping people will be honest and speak with us openly,” Lassandro said. The task force would like to hold a meeting like this at least annually, she said.

The meeting will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. on Monday, October 17 at the Riverhead Human Resource Center, located at 70 Shade Tree Lane in Aquebogue.

Newsday reports:
The Suffolk SPCA, in cooperation with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, is hosting an “Amnesty Day” for surrendering illegally possessed species —  animals that are protected, endangered or threatened and so require special state DEC and Fish and Wildlife permits.

The SPCA and DEC are asking those who don’t have one of those permits or licenses to surrender their exotic pet on Saturday, October 14 at the headquarters of the Suffolk County SPCA, 725 Veterans Memorial Hwy., Building 16, in Smithtown. The hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“The purpose of this effort is to get these illegally possessed animals into a controlled environment where they can be cared for properly,” SPCA Chief Roy Gross said in a statement released Tuesday. “People who are in possession of these animals unlawfully can turn them in to us without fear of prosecution. No one will be asked to give their name.” Trained handlers will be available to accept the unlicensed, illegal and exotic mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Included in the surrender program are a variety of snakes, such as Burmese pythons, green anacondas, Australian Amethystine pythons and others, as well as such large lizards as Asiatic monitors, Nile monitors, crocodile monitors, all varieties of alligators, crocodiles and caimans, even Komodo Dragons and mammals.

Monday October 10, 2016 (Thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: Teamsters ratify deal with Lockheed Martin; new deal to reopen Connecticut’s Old State House to the public; and, the FBI probes two fires on the Shinnecock reservation.

Members of Teamster Local 1150 voted overwhelmingly to accept a contract with Lockheed Martin that will keep production of the 200 CH-53K King Stallion Helicopters at the Sikorsky facility in Stratford for the next 14 years. The voting took place on Sunday and with a majority of 2,104 votes in favor, versus 143 against the contract. 

Sunday’s vote was a necessary step in Lockheed Martin’s decision to stay and manufacture the helicopter in Connecticut. On September 28, the General Assembly had approved a $220 million incentive program for the manufacturer during a one-day special session. This incentive was necessary because company representatives said the cost of doing business in Connecticut was about $400 million more than in southern states like Florida and South Carolina. 

Politicians were quick to comment on Sunday, thanking the union for ratifying the agreement. “Connecticut’s Executive Branch, our General Assembly, Lockheed Martin, and its many skilled workers have all joined together to protect the long-term success of Connecticut’s advanced manufacturing base,” said Governor Dannel P. Malloy.

U.S. Representative, Rosa DeLauro said, “Today’s agreement between Lockheed Martin and Local 1150 will keep Sikorsky in Connecticut for years to come and will keep our hardworking men and women building the most advanced helicopters in the world.” U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy issued the following statement, “The deal approved today is a testament to Connecticut’s skilled workforce and the united commitment of the state and workers to ensure Connecticut remains a national hub for defense manufacturers and their suppliers.” 

Connecticut’s Old State House will reopen to the public on a limited basis, possibly as soon as November 1, based on an agreement announced Friday by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and state legislative leaders. The agreement returns control of the downtown Hartford landmark to the Office of Legislative Management, ending a plan to shift oversight to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. It also ensures that paintings, antiques and other memorabilia slated for removal from the Old State House will remain in the building, which was completed in 1796.

While some details of the transition are still being finalized Jim Tracy, Executive Director of the Office of Legislative Management, said he hopes the building will be open to school groups and other visitors in four weeks. Some details, including hours of public access, are still being developed.

It also was unclear whether the legislature would need additional funds in its budget in order to maintain control over the historic building.

Newsday reports:
The FBI is investigating an August 26 fire at the Shinnecock Indian reservation in Southampton that destroyed two homes, including one occupied by five people in the latest blaze tribal leaders have charged was intentionally set.

Daniel Collins Jr. and his wife, Laurabeth Collins, escaped from the blaze with their two children, and niece. The couple said they can’t imagine why anyone would intentionally set the buildings on fire. “It was literally a matter of minutes before we got out,” Dan Collins Jr. said, before the house was fully engulfed in flames. He said accelerants were found on the property, suggesting arson.

FBI spokeswoman Kelly Langmesser said the agency was investigating. “We are looking into it,” she said, but declined to confirm whether arson was suspected or if the blaze was related to at least two other fires on the reservation since 2013, including one at a tribal government trailer.

Members of the tribal trustees, the Shinnecock’s leaders, have labeled the fire at the Collins’ homes a “senseless act of arson,” and trustee chairman Bryan Polite noted it’s “the fifth arson in four years.” The tribe’s council of trustees in August sent a letter to tribal members charging the blaze was “intentionally set.” “This incident put all tribal members in harm’s way and could have burned down more homes,” the trustees wrote. “We will not let this senseless act of arson stand.”

The New York State Police are also investigating, but a spokesman declined to discuss the case.

Friday October 7, 2016 (Thanks to WPKN volunteer Mike Merli.)

In tonight’s news: lawmakers clash over fate of Connecticut’s DCF Commissioner; Connecticut House Democrats rally against the closure of two vocational technical schools; New York State activist attorney dies; and,a coalition of environmental groups in New York state unite to oppose nuclear power plant subsidies.

One Connecticut lawmaker continues to push for the resignation of the Department of Children and Families (or DCF) Commissioner Joette Katz, while another is calling for a public hearing following the Child Advocate’s report on the near-death of a toddler. Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano (R – North Haven) maintained his position that Katz should be held responsible for failing this toddler and other children in the agency’s care, and that she should resign.

However, Rep. Diana Urban (D – North Stonington), who co-chairs the Children’s Committee that oversees the department, doesn’t believe Katz is the problem. Urban said she would hold a public hearing after the election in November after the election to further investigate why this toddler was allowed to spend five months in a foster home where he was neglected and allowed to nearly starve to death. Asked yesterday about whether Katz should resign, Governor Malloy said he supports the commissioner.

Malloy said the judge and the plaintiffs in a decades old court order are all saying the agency is making improvements. He said in the last six years there’s been a reduction in out-of-state placements and an increase in the number of children being placed in foster homes with relatives. Malloy added that he is holding Katz accountable and that “real progress is being made in Connecticut.”

Yesterday, Connecticut House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz (D – Berlin) criticized the state Education Department’s suggestion it would close two vocational-technical schools to find $16.3 million in savings. At a press conference in his Hartford office yesterday, Aresimowicz called on Governor Malloy to prevent it from moving forward.

At an unrelated event in New Haven, Malloy said, there’s “no plan to close schools.” He said the Education Department was asked to submit budget proposals to his office for consideration. He added that he felt yesterday’s press conference was an overreaction by lawmakers.

Aresimowicz believes the 17 vocational technical schools should not be under control of the state Board of Education because their needs are different than traditional public schools. He said they need to adapt quickly to the needs of private manufacturers, and getting approval from the state board for some of these partnerships is too time consuming. As of now, there is no indication as to which two schools would be closed. 

State Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell pitched the closure on Wednesday as part of her agency’s solutions to cutting 10% from its budget over the next year.

Peter Henner, an activist attorney, former Assembly staffer, Council 82 lawyer, and most recently a watchdog over New York state’s $500 million broadband expansion project, died of cancer on September 29th, months after being diagnosed with an aggressive metastatic melanoma.

During a long and varied career, Henner, 64, had battled landfill operators and had helped to preserve the Albany Pine Bush area. Most recently, he took on the Empire State Development corporation, going to court to prod them into releasing written comments about broadband expansion. He had been continuing to follow the broadband expansion, expressing concern that the ongoing effort doesn’t overlook smaller and often poorer communities that don’t yet have broadband service.

The broadband effort is ongoing, with almost $76 million worth of funding for expansions recently being approved.

A coalition of environmental groups including Food & Water Watch and the New York Public Interest Research Group have united to oppose what they estimate as an almost $8 billion effort to subsidize three upstate nuclear power plants: the James A. Fitzpatrick Nuclear Power Plant and Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating Station outside Oswego and the R.E.Ginna plant east of Rochester.

The state Public Service Commission (or PSC) voted in early August to approve a rate increase for the power generated by the plants to pay for the subsidies. Since then, a group of downstate lawmakers have called for the PSC to reconsider that action and be more transparent in its analysis, noting that the majority of the cost of keeping the plants on line will be borne by downstate rate-payers.

On Wednesday, the environmental coalition made the same economic argument, estimating that residential consumers will be on the hook for an estimated $2.3 billion over the 12-year life of the deal. The coalition plans to mount a grassroots effort to kill the subsidies in much the same way that the natural gas drilling technique known as hydrofracking was blocked.
Wednesday October 5, 2016 and 
 Thursday October 6, 2016 currently unavailable

Tuesday October 4, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers Trace Alford and Chris Cadra.)

In the news tonight: RBS to pay Connecticut $120 million to settle mortgage underwriting case; Bridgeport and Stratford re-dedicate a safer runway at Sikorsky Memorial; Suffolk reports first human cases of West Nile virus; and Governor Cuomo inspects Indian Point Nuclear Plant after oil spill.

In the largest single state settlement ever, RBS Securities Inc. will pay Connecticut $120 million to resolve allegations the bank’s handling of mortgage-backed securities directly contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen and Banking Commissioner Jorge Perez announced the settlement Monday. The bulk of the settlement will go to the state’s General Fund, but $250,000 will go to the Department of Banking for financial education, training and a financial literacy program.

Connecticut accused RBS of dishonest and unethical conduct, and of making false statements when representing its securities products. State officials claimed that RBS contributed to the financial crisis by failing to complete proper due diligence in certain mortgage-backed investment tools, including securities backed by subprime mortgages that homeowners were unable to pay back when their home values sank during the recession. 

Under the settlement, for 10 years, RBS must certify with the state Department of Banking that it complies with conditions of a plan approved by the National Adjudicatory Council of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Connecticut Post reports:
More than 20 years in the making, the reconstructed runway at Sikorsky Memorial Airport was inaugurated Monday when Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim and Stratford Mayor John Harkins each landed in separate aircrafts. The city of Bridgeport owns the airport, but it sits entirely in Stratford. 

The runway had been closed since late 2014 so that a 300-foot length of EMAS, or engineered materials arresting system, could be installed.  EMAS consists of weak-walled concrete blocks designed to safely stop an aircraft that overshoots the runway. When an aircraft rolls over it, the weight of the wheels crushes the blocks, bringing the aircraft to a safe, controlled stop. The FAA covered 90% of the $46 million project, with the state and city of Bridgeport evenly splitting the remaining 10%.

Last year, the airport began commercial service for the first time in 16 years. Tailwind Air now flies commuters between Stratford and Manhattan’s 23rd Street Pier using amphibious aircraft. 

Suffolk County reported its first human cases of West Nile virus this year. Three Suffolk residents have been stricken with the mosquito-borne virus, according to Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken. Two fell ill in late August and the third in September. All three were hospitalized as a result of the illness, but have since been released. Two were over age 50. 

Tomarken said: “There is no discernible trend.” The number of human cases of West Nile virus varies each year. Suffolk County reported five human cases in 2015, one in 2014, and four in both 2011 and 2013.

West Nile is transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito. It is estimated that 20% of those infected develop clinically noticeable symptoms of West Nile. Mild symptoms may include fever, headache, body aches, skin rash and swollen lymph glands. More severe symptoms include high fever, neck stiffness, disorientation, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis. West Nile can be fatal. Individuals who are most at risk for severe infection include those over 50 and those with chronic illness or compromised immune systems. 

Mosquito season extends from June 1 through November 1.

longisland.com reports: 
Governor Cuomo inspected Indian Point Nuclear Facility on Monday and gave an update on the state’s response to an oil spill reported at the facility.  On Friday, September 30, Entergy reported that oil had leaked from a heat exchanger into a cooling water discharge canal inside the facility. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation immediately responded.

Most of the 600 gallons of petroleum that leaked were contained within the plant. A small portion reached the discharge canal. The governor inspected the facility that night. DEC spill response staff inspected it again the next day, and found no oil or sheen visible in the canal or the Hudson River. 

Governor Cuomo said: “This incident is the latest in a litany of operational issues at this aging power plant.” Since 2011, the plant has had more than 40 spills and unexpected shutdowns. 

Monday October 3, 2016 (Thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: Connecticut ends 2016 in deficit, but 2017 budget is currently in balance; AAA in northeastern Connecticut ends contract with DMV; New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sends Trump Foundation a cease-and-desist letter; and, the Suffolk County Water Authority can collect on $580,000 in unpaid bills under new law.

Connecticut State Comptroller Kevin Lembo said Monday that the state is on track to end the 2017 fiscal year essentially in balance. However, he warned that economic growth remains moderate and capital markets remain volatile. There’s also the recent past as a guide. The state ended the last two fiscal years in deficit.

According to Lembo, the state ended the 2016 fiscal year on Sept. 30 with a $170 million budget deficit that will be covered by the Rainy Day Fund. There is $235.5 million in the Rainy Day Fund, which is about 1.3% of general fund spending.

In 2016 the state spent $17.92 billion, which is an increase of $501.6 million or 2.9% over the 2015 fiscal year. Almost 80% of the spending increase went toward debt service which increased $265.5 million, or 18.7%, and the state employees’ retirement system, which grew $125.9 million, or 13%.

General government spending was down $34 million, health and hospitals was down $19.4 million and conservation and development was down $11 million. Most of the 2016 budget woes can be attributed to “disappointing revenue results,” Lembo said.

At a time when the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles was hoping it could lean more heavily on its private partners, AAA Northeast, which has offices in Branford, Danbury, Fairfield, Hamden, Milford, Norwalk, Stamford, and Waterbury, told state officials Monday that it would no longer be offering licensing services to members of the general public. Instead, only members of its club will be able to receive services in those locations.

AAA Allied, which has offices in Avon, Cromwell, Enfield, Manchester, Old Saybrook, Plainville, Waterford, and West Hartford, will continue to serve members of the public in those locations.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said the decision to by AAA Northeast to sever its relationship with the Department of Motor Vehicles was “unacceptable.”

In a letter to AAA Northeast President and CEO Mark A. Shaw, Malloy wrote that he would take legal action if necessary to make sure that doesn’t happen. He reminded Shaw that there’s a 60-day termination notice in its contract with the DMV and he will “take any and all necessary legal steps to resolve this matter.” “AAA Northeast’s decision to stop servicing non-members is rather shocking since Connecticut has always valued our working relationship with AAA,” Malloy said. “The State of Connecticut and AAA have enjoyed a mutually beneficial private-public partnership for many years. Up to this point, the history of our partnership has been nothing but positive.”

AAA Northeast said the decision was necessary because the number of office transactions has nearly doubled and the number of non-member transactions has increased from 17% five years ago to almost 50% in 2016.

According to the Albany Times Union:
New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office has sent a cease-and-desist letter to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s charitable foundation, noting that its failure to file necessary documents with the state Charities Bureau means it is legally prevented from soliciting or fundraising in New York State. The foundation has 15 days to turn in the missing filings and any other deficient documents or face potential fraud charges. The letter, dated Friday, is signed by James Sheehan, who heads the Charities Bureau.

Its alleged failure to file correct paperwork might be the least of the Trump Foundation’s worries. The Washington Post — which reported last week on the missing filings in New York State — has reported extensively on the foundation’s penchant for using its funds and its tax-exempt status in ways that tended to benefit the real estate mogul’s for-profit businesses.

Schneiderman in August, 2013 sued Trump over his management of the now-defunct success academy known as Trump University. Trump subsequently filed a complaint with the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, claiming that the Democratic attorney general tried to shake down Trump’s relatives for campaign contributions before filing the Trump U lawsuit. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics dismissed the complaint.

Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in a statement that while “we remain very concerned about the political motives behind A.G. Schneiderman’s investigation, the Trump Foundation nevertheless intends to cooperate fully with the investigation. Because this is an ongoing legal matter, the Trump Foundation will not comment further at this time.”

Newsday reports:
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed legislation that will allow the Suffolk County Water Authority to collect on nearly $600,000 in annual unpaid water bills that the agency now writes off, by issuing tax liens. Jeff Szabo, authority chief executive officer said, “We’re thrilled. This is a victory for water authority customers who pay their bills on time.” Cuomo also signed similar legislation for the Water Authority of Great Neck North.

SCWA officials say they will continue their present collection efforts, but they have 3,000 to 4,000 customers each year who fail to make payments within 120 days. Over the last five years, the authority has written off an average of $580,000 annually.

While authority officials say they do not expect the change to result in a rate reduction, they say that it could be used to offset future rate hikes. Authority officials do not expect to be able to issue liens in time for 2017 tax bills that go out early in December, but will be ready for 2018.