Thursday, December 1, 2016

December 2016

Thursday December 29, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: Connecticut identifies $50 million in mid-year cuts to municipalities; new study finds Connecticut a fine place to do business; and, Huntington Town gets $76,000 state grant for blueway trail plan.

Municipal leaders found out today just how much less the state will be sending their municipalities for education and construction projects for the fiscal year that ends July 1. The $50 million in midyear cuts that were announced this afternoon 
by the governor’s budget office come in the wake of the legislature 
adopting a budget with $20 million in unassigned cuts to municipalities and $30 million from grants for local construction projects. 

While every town is hit, the cuts to education largely fall on the state’s wealthiest communities and somewhat shield the most impoverished school districts. Greenwich, the state’s most affluent community, will lose $1.3 million, a 90% cut to its Education Cost Sharing grant. The state’s poorest community, Hartford, will lose $250,000, a 0.0% cut in education aid. This $20 million mid-year cut in education aid falls on top of the
 $84 million cut to education in the adopted state budget for the current fiscal year.

While the poorest communities were largely spared from the education cuts, not so with reductions in the Local Capital Improvement Program: those are expected to land heavily on poor communities. In letters to leaders of the General Assembly, the governor’s budget director explained his office had no choice but to make these cuts given the $50 million built-in hole in the adopted state budget. The assignment of these cuts does not affect the current fiscal year’s anticipated budget deficit of $41.6 million.

There’s been no shortage of criticism of Connecticut’s business climate in recent years as the state recovers slowly from the Great Recession. However,  a new study issued this month by the Council on State Taxation concludes Connecticut actually is tied for the most favorable business climate — if one considers not just the cost of doing business, but the potential for earning big profits here. The latest study, prepared by the global accounting firm Ernst & Young, says state and local business taxes here represent just 3.5% of gross state product – GSP – or the value of all goods and services produced annually in Connecticut. Only Alaska and North Carolina can also boast a ratio this low, which is well below the national average of 4.6%.

“Connecticut is home to several high-output industries, including insurance, financial services and aerospace,” the report states. “Connecticut’s economy generates a large amount of GSP and gross operating surplus per worker, meaning that while Connecticut imposes higher-than-average taxes on a per-worker basis, its business taxes are significantly below the national average when measured per dollar of GSP.”

Catherine Smith, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said the study recognizes some crucial aspects of Connecticut’s business climate. “We do produce high-quality goods and services,” she said, citing the financial services sector as one example. “We’re high value in many ways,” the commissioner said, adding that while business costs here exceed the national average, “you also get very high quality workers in terms of the degrees they have.” The COST report also noted that “these results should not be interpreted to mean that Connecticut is a low-tax environment overall.”

Joseph F. Brennan, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said that comment is key. While there are many factors that shape a state’s economic climate, business costs in general — and state and local tax policy in particular — are crucial. “Connecticut is a tremendous place to do business, and we have amazing assets here,” Brennan said. “But we are competing in a global environment, and when it comes to taxes, we really have to try this year not to make it any worse.”

According to Newsday, Huntington Town is to receive a $76,000 state grant to create its own educational, water-based trail system — a blueway — that would extend the length of the town’s full 61 miles of shoreline, Councilman Mark Cuthbertson said Wednesday. “Our waterways are such an underutilized asset,” said Cuthbertson, who sponsored the resolution to pursue funding for the project. “Getting the state funding will really jump start . . . a new venture for us.” Funding for the Huntington blueway trail came from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, which requires a 50% local funding match.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County is partnering with the town on the project, and will cover Huntington’s share of the local match costs. The cooperative will also provide technical expertise to manage the project, field research, education and marine habitat restoration. Huntington officials announced plans in August to pursue the coastal project, which will offer new access for small boats to dock and explore local historic and cultural points of interest.

The trail will stretch from the head of Cold Spring Harbor through the Huntington-Northport Bay complex, ending at the mouth of Fresh Pond in Smithtown Bay. The project includes plans for the creation of a town map of the trail, as well as natural and cultural heritage points of interest along the way. Officials have said they eventually want to develop a mobile application that will help guide users though the town’s blueway. The funding will also help the town develop a long-term blueprint for preserving the coastline and developing it responsibly, officials said. 

Huntington leaders have said they would like to coordinate with Oyster Bay to connect the new blueway to the existing Theodore Roosevelt Blueway west of Huntington. The three-year Huntington project does not yet have a start date.

Wednesday December 28, 2016 (Thanks to WPKN volunteer Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles shows improvement; Connecticut Puts Out Call for More Charter Schools; and, Long Island Offshore Wind Advocates are hopeful.

Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy proclaimed Wednesday that the state of the much-maligned Department of Motor Vehicles is better. It’s 55% better, as measured by average wait times that have dropped from 77 minutes to 34 minutes since the DMV improved customer service and streamlined procedures over the summer, the work of a new management team that took over in January, Malloy said.

Judeen Wrinn, a retired corporate executive with experience as a customer-service troubleshooter, was hired as the deputy to Commissioner Michael Bzdyra and given one task — pinpoint why the lines had grown so long, aside from bugs in a new computer system. What worked in the private sector was transferrable to the public sector, she said, standing with Malloy, Bzdyra and other DMV staff. “It wasn’t different,” Wrinn said. “You look at the data. You look at what the customers expect. You involve the employees — and I think that is a key factor here. We involve the employees. The front line employees were pulled together to look at the current process.”

Wrinn said the DMV studied 500 customer interactions and identified points where the system failed, then gave the data to front-line employees and coached them to design changes. “That’s the same as the private sector,” Wrinn said. “The more you involve the people who are actually doing the work and you listen to the customers, the more you are going to make it better. But we really relied on data.” Customer advocates now circulate through lines, checking to see that customers have all the document necessary to complete transactions. DMV offices open 15 minutes early, allowing documents to be checked before the windows open for business. Wrinn said changes were tested at the main headquarters in Wethersfield and at a busy branch office in Enfield, then implemented at all 12 offices.

A new telephone system is going in next year, and more business is going on line. When a new license renewal system is activated, motorists will have the visit the DMV just once every 12 years for renewals. The new computer system, which triggered so many of the delays, has largely been debugged, Malloy said. “That’s a work in progress,” he said, “but the amount of progress that’s been made is quite remarkable.”

The state may be eyeing a billion-dollar deficit and appealing a court decision that labels its funding of public education as unconstitutional, but that isn’t stopping Connecticut from putting out the call for more charter schools, reports the Connecticut Post. The state Department of Education put out a request for proposals Tuesday, seeking applications for new state and local charter schools during 2017. Applic-ations will be accepted next year between July 1 and Aug. 15.

There are 24 charter schools operating in Connecticut — 23 state and one local charter. Six are in Bridgeport, including Capital Prep Harbor, which opened in 2015. It has been more than three years since the state solicited charter school applications. Whether a charter school gets funded or not is up to the Legislature.

“State statute says we should review charter school applications on an annual basis, so we are fulfilling our statutory obligation,” said Abbe Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education. Charter schools get public funding but are run independently from local school districts. They are seen by some as a choice for parents seeking an alternative to traditional public schools. Others see them as competition for scarce public dollars. Commissioner of Education Dianna R. Wentzell called school choice empowering for students and families.

In the past fiscal year, general funding to the state’s Education Cost Sharing formula was held flat, despite rising costs. That led districts like Bridgeport to cut kindergarten aides, school counselors and other staff.

More than 100 advocates for offshore wind, comprised of environmental and labor groups and politicians, rallied outside of Long Island Power Authority headquarters in Uniondale last week urging the agency to sign a contract to purchase power from offshore wind. LIPA CEO Thomas Falcone, who sat with several model wind turbines on the table in front of him, told activists who packed LIPA’s board room for the agency’s monthly board of directors meeting after the rally that he expected to have a big announcement about offshore wind in the new year. His comments were followed by an eruption of applause from the crowd.

The Rhode Island offshore wind developer Deepwater Wind turned on the switch earlier this month on the first offshore wind project in the country off of Block Island, but the company’s proposed Deepwater ONE project in the waters 30 miles off of Montauk, which could to provide power to the East End, is still awaiting a bid award decision from LIPA.
Mr. Falcone told reporters this past summer that the Deepwater ONE project would be approved in July of this year, but the vote was postponed at the last minute because LIPA was awaiting the publication of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s blueprint for the state’s Offshore Wind Master Plan, which was completed in early fall.

Organizers of the rally ranged from the Sierra Club to Renewable Energy Long Island to the Long Island Federation of Labor, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, ironworkers, painters and other labor groups, and Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Long Island Commercial Fishing Association Executive Director Bonnie Brady of Montauk was the one person in attendance at the LIPA meeting Tuesday who expressed skepticism about offshore wind, where the board took about half an hour of public comment. Ms. Brady said the construction of the wind farm would involve pile driving the ocean floor, killing fish with swim bladders, while low-level electromagnetic frequencies at the site, which currently is part of an active cod fishery, would attract sharks. “The reality is, this is not a clean project,” she said, adding that there is a glut of power on Long Island, but the LIPA grid is broken. “Truly green projects don’t destroy the environment to save the environment,” she said. “If we fix the grid, we’ll have enough power on the East End until 2030.” Ms. Brady urged the board to encourage more solar projects, instead of wind.

Monday December 26, 2016 (Thanks to WPKN volunteers.)

In the news tonight: Connecticut Senate Announces Power Sharing Agreement; New Haven’s Ecuadorean community and supporters hold rally; and, Greenport forms group to improves ties with Latino Community.

Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate announced last Thursday that they have reached an agreement on how to operate an evenly divided chamber. Senate President Martin Looney will keep his title of Senate President Pro Tempore and Sen. Len Fasano will have the title of Senate Republican President Pro Tempore. Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, will remain the Senate Majority Leader. Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, will serve as the Deputy Senate Republican President Pro Tempore.  But more important than titles, the power will be shared equally when it comes to which bills will be raised for a vote.

The agreement will give more power to Republicans than they’ve had in the past as the minority party. The recent election saw the Senate shift from a 21-15 majority held by Democrats to an even 18-18 split. Democrats still hold a slight edge when it comes to debating and voting upon bills because Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who presides over the Senate, will be able to break a tie vote, according to the state constitution. 

Fasano said all four leaders will have to agree upon what bills will be marked “ready” and raised for a vote in the chamber. If there’s a disagreement about a bill, any one of the four leaders can challenge it and ask for a vote of the chamber on whether the bill should be debated.  Presumably, since Wyman is still able to break a tie vote on legislation, Democrats will be able to maintain some sway over the bills raised. However, it’s not a given that the members will vote along with their party every time. There will also be an equal number of Democratic and Republican senators on legislative committees and each committee will be led by a Democratic and Republican Senate co-chair. Both Senate chairs will have the right to split a committee, thereby allowing each chair an equal influence over Senate bills and agendas.

“This agreement will have senators talking and conversing and I think that’s a good thing,” Fasano said. Looney, who underwent successful kidney transplant surgery on Tuesday, said in a press release that it was critical: “Democrats and Republicans work together to reach a fair compromise to ensure that the Senate is able to conduct its business and move Connecticut forward.”

A group of Ecuadorean residents of New Haven and their supporters rallied last week to raise awareness of what they say is the mistreatment and exploitation of indigenous people by the government of Ecuador. WPKN’s Melinda Tuhus has more:

They gathered in front of the Ecuadorean consulate, and explained, in both Spanish and English, why they were there. “New Haven is home to one of the largest Ecuadorean communities in the US and the consulate is here in the Elm City.  It’s for this reason that we’ve decided to organize and take action against the brutal human rights violations occurring right now in our country, in the province of Morona Santiago, as the federal government betrays its original peoples in favor of a large Chinese mining company.”

Protesters said Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has betrayed his progressive bona fides by allowing the Chinese-funded copper mining company, ExplorCobres, to do exploratory work in an area occupied by the Shuar indigenous people. The Shuar say the government initiated the violence that has occurred when it expelled them from their ancestral home to make way for mining developments. New Haven protesters said this is another example of repression of indigenous peoples, like the fight of the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access pipeline.

Melinda Tuhus, WPKN News

According to Newsday, Greenport residents and town officials are getting together in a newly formed coalition with a big goal — fostering understanding between the town’s immigrant and Latino residents and the community at large. The One Greenport Coalition came about shortly after the November presidential election, according to Greenport Village board of trustees member Doug Roberts, who helped to spearhead the new group’s creation. Greenport has had a “long and proud tradition of immigration,” said Roberts, noting the village has been home to emancipated slaves during the Civil War era and Eastern European and Irish immigrants, among other groups, in later generations. According to census data, Hispanics made up 34.0% of Greenport’s population in 2010, up from 17.2% in 2000.

However, Roberts noticed that during some village board discussions during the presidential campaign over subdivision and rental-housing applications [that] some residents had “the idea that it would be overcrowded with certain types of people.” Amid concerns from some residents about what the election would mean for immigrant and Latino residents in Greenport, former Greenport Mayor David Kapell suggested to Roberts that he do something to help bring people together. More than a dozen local residents have signed up for the new coalition. “We’re still figuring out what we’re going to do, but the focus is on unity and bringing people together, sharing cultural ideas and backgrounds and making neighbors feel comfortable in the village where they live,” Roberts said.

Ramona Miranda, 30, a group member and Greenport resident since she was 2, whose parents emigrated from Guatemala in 1989, said that while she was growing up in the village she found Greenport to be welcoming to people from different ethnic backgrounds. However, her daughter Aly, who is in fourth grade in the village, has expressed fears over what the election means for the parents of her immigrant friends.

Diana Gordon, a Greenport resident, group member and author, studied the lives and contributions of Greenport’s Latino immigrants in her book Village of Immigrants: Latinos in an Emerging America.  “It’s absolutely crucial that Greenport be welcoming as it can be,” she said. Yvonne Lieblein, a group member who grew up in Greenport, said: “Greenport is like a tapestry, with all of these different cultures and socioeconomic groups woven together. To me, it’s one of the most special things about this place.”

Friday December 23, 2016   (Thanks to WPKN volunteers Gretchen Swanson, Neil Tolhurst, and Mike Merli.)

In tonight’s news: AAA finds a record number of Americans planning to travel for the holidays; New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli orders internal review amid pension fund scandal; and the State of New York and the Correction Officers’ Union have agreed to a contract.

According to AAA, a record 103 million people nationwide plan to travel for the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays, so those heading to see family and friends this week and next will have plenty of company. The number of Americans who said they plan to travel at least 50 miles between now and January 2 is the highest number since AAA began tracking holiday travel statistics, and an increase of nearly 2 percent over last year. Because Christmas Day and New Year’s Day fall on Sundays this year, the holiday travel period is a bit shorter than it has been in other years, but that doesn’t appear to be putting a damper on people’s plans.

Most travelers, about 93.6 million or 91%, will head to their destinations by car, up 1.5% from last year.  Another 6 million, or 6%, will fly, up 2.5% from last year, and another 3.5 million will go by train, bus, or another mode of transportation.

Those hitting the road will see higher gas prices than they did this time last year. On Monday, Connecticut drivers paid an average of $2.38 a gallon for regular gas, up 20 cents from a year ago. Nationwide, drivers paid an average of $2.24 a gallon for regular gas Monday, up 24 cents from last year around this time.

For those planning to travel in the region by train, Metro-North will be running on a special schedule. Today, Metro-North began running extra trains leaving Grand Central around 1pm. Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, the trains will run on a regular Saturday schedule, and on Christmas Day, they will be on a regular Sunday schedule. Since Christmas is on a Sunday and many businesses will observe the holiday on Monday, Metro-North will run on a Saturday schedule December 26th with some additional “Shoppers’ Specials” trains.

AAA’s survey found that those flying to their destinations this holiday season are expected to spend an average of $204 round-trip for the 40 most popular domestic routes.

According to Albany Times Union, yesterday New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli ordered an internal review of his office’s hiring practices and oversight.  This follows the arrest of former state pension fund manager Navnoor Kang, indicted for taking bribes ranging from cash to crack cocaine to prostitutes, in exchange for steering $2 billion dollars in investments to Wall Street broker-dealers. 

Kang denies the charges. DiNapoli said Kang was fired earlier this year because of how he managed his responsibilities. But, the indictment says internal hiring controls missed that Kang was fired from an investment firm before the state job, for accepting an $8,000 watch in return for giving business to a securities dealer.  DiNapoli defended his office, calling Kang “a rogue employee.”

New York State’s pension fund, the nation’s third largest, is run by a sole trustee: the comptroller. Other state funds are run by a board.  Governor Cuomo said: “The temptation for corruption and bribery and bid-rigging is very, very high. It’s a chronic problem.”  DiNapoli said: “I dispute that. It’s clearly not chronic.” 

DiNapoli directed his office’s inspector general and head of investigations unit to review the Kang matter, and hiring procedures, which include a background check process. 

Gov. Cuomo’s administration and the state correction officers union reached a tentative contract agreement Thursday evening. The agreement provides for 2% raises for 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 and  “compensation enhancements” based on location of work and hazardous duties. The agreement, if ratified, is projected to save the state roughly $35 million on health insurance costs and another $35 million on overtime costs.

Cuomo said: “This agreement fairly compensates the hardworking men and women who help keep our facilities safe, while at the same time provides the State the ability to appropriately discipline those that engage in the most serious misconduct.” The tentative agreement also includes a new tripartite panel to hear abuse and neglect cases involving inmates and wards of the state with a table of penalties covering serious misconduct. Recently, Cuomo ordered an investigation into alleged racial bias in the prison system following a New York Times investigation that detailed numerous instances of bias. 

New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association President Michael Powers said the union is pleased with the agreement. Powers said: “The men and women of NYSCOPBA work under some of the most dangerous conditions, and play a vital role in the law enforcement community that makes New York one of the safest states in the nation.  I would like to thank Governor Cuomo for his continued support and leadership in recognizing that our members carry themselves with professionalism and integrity.”


Thursday December 22, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers Melinda Tuhus and Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: the New Haven chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut gather in solidarity; the Connecticut State Budget Picture Improves Slightly; and, civil rights groups sue over New York state ethics law.

About 50 members and friends of the New Haven chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut gathered Wednesday evening at the intersection of Chapel and College streets to demonstrate solidarity with groups targeted by the government or hate groups. 

WPKN’s Melinda Tuhus was there.

Billed as a Hanukah commemoration of liberation and solidarity, the group crossed from one corner of the intersection to another until they had completed a circle. They highlighted opposition to Islamophobia, but included support for Black Lives Matter and the indigenous fight at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access pipeline. 

Singing new words to traditional Hanukkah songs, they got their point across: you have reaped what you’ve sown.

Melinda Tuhus, WPKN News.

Connecticut’s budget deficit has improved, according to Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes, because spending was reduced. In his monthly letter to state Comptroller Kevin Lembo, Barnes reduced the deficit by $26.1 million. That still leaves the state with an estimated $41.6 million deficit for 2017. At the same time, spending is still about $18.4 million above the budget plan. That means Barnes will still have to find an additional $39.6 million to cut before the end of the year. 

Legal claims against the state have crept up by $9 million over what was budgeted, according to Barnes, and he also said several state agencies are still over budget, including the Office of Chief Medical Examiner and Office of Early Childhood. Additionally, the Department of Correction is experiencing a $2.2 million shortfall in its estimated Workers’ Compensation account, debt service is $12 million short of what was estimated, and the Public Defender Services Commission is$4.3 million over budget.

Revenues have remained unchanged from the November estimates. “As always, the month of April, when final payments are received under the income tax, is the most significant collection period for the state,” Barnes wrote. “The next consensus revenue forecast will be released on or before January 17, and will be incorporated into next month’s budget estimate.” Lembo will certify the deficit on Jan. 1. 

Next year’s deficit, which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and lawmakers will have to contend with starting in January has been estimated as $1.3 billion. The governor will release his budget in February.

According to the Albany Times-Union, the foundations of the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union have jointly filed a lawsuit saying an ethics law passed by the Legislature earlier this year violated the First and Fourth amendments. In a suit filed last night, the plaintiffs are seeking declaration that the law is unconstitutional, and an injunction prohibiting enforcement of the provisions by the attorney’s general’s office and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which are the defendants in the case.

The civil rights groups say that the law requires tax-exempt organizations to “disclose information about certain donors, communications, and expenditures that are unrelated to any legitimate state interest.” The law means that the groups’ donors “risk a serious threat of harassment or retaliation if their names are publicly associated with the organizations and the sometimes unpopular causes they support.”

“This law was pitched as a vehicle to address the problem of money in politics, but instead of doing that, it takes aim at free speech rights of groups like the NYCLU and ACLU and hundreds of other educational and advocacy groups and their supporters,” said the NYCLU’s executive director, Donna Lieberman. “The law goes way beyond lobbying or electioneering expenditures and makes public names and addresses of supporters who have nothing to do with lobbying or electioneering activities.”

The government reform group Citizens Union has also filed a lawsuit over similar concerns. Good government groups have put forth the idea that the law was passed to target them in order to stifle their criticism of state government. The Cuomo administration has said the law is meant to prevent the use of tax deductible donations for lobbying. Unless the lawsuits succeed in getting an injunction, the first lobbying reports with the new disclosure requirements are due at the end of January.

Wednesday December 21, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteer Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: Connecticut Senate President Pro Tem files bills for upcoming legislative session; Activists Defend the Affordable Care Act and March to Connecticut Republican Party Headquarters; and, Governor and legislative leaders plan a special session of
the New York Legislature.

Connecticut Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, was busy before his hospitalization Tuesday for a kidney transplant, filing bills that would create a paid family-and-medical leave system, raise the minimum wage and legalize marijuana.

The senator also proposed bills that would lighten the burden on certain Connecticut taxpayers by exempting Social Security benefits from the state income tax, expanding a property-tax exemption for business, and raising the state estate tax exemption from $2 million to $5.49 million, matching the federal exemption. “The bills Sen. Looney filed represent his legislative priorities,” his spokesman, Adam Joseph, said Wednesday. “They are certainly not the only things we are going to be focusing on this session. We have a lot of work to do.”

With the election of 18 Democrats and 18 Republicans to the Senate on Nov. 8, few bills are expected to pass in 2017 without significant bipartisan support. In fact, Looney and Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano of North Haven have been discussing a power-sharing agreement giving both parties a say over the Senate’s agenda. Democrats retain a slight edge because of the authority of Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, a Democrat, to break ties as the presiding officer of the Senate, though Republicans question whether that ability extends to the re-election of Looney as president pro tem.

Few of Looney’s bills are brand new, a reminder that some measures pass only after years of effort. Looney succeeded in passing an earned income tax credit only after filing repeated versions and, finally, the election of a sympathetic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “I understand what he’s doing, and that’s his politics,” Fasano said of Looney’s early bills. He said some clearly were meant to be “thought provoking.”

“Some of these are problematic, especially legalizing marijuana, since the governor says he is opposed,” Fasano said.

The General Assembly doesn’t convene its 2017 session until Jan. 4, but legislators are starting to file early bills that typically are concepts, not fully formed legislation. As the president pro tem of the Senate, Looney has the prerogative of designating what will be Senate Bill 1.  According to the clerk’s office, he chose “An Act Creating a Paid Family and Medical Leave System in the State.”

A small group marched from Capital Community College in Hartford to the Connecticut Republican Party headquarters Tuesday afternoon, chanting, singing and protesting what they called “President-elect Donald Trump and his allies’ massive attack on every aspect of our families’ health care.” 
Organizer Dan Durso gave a speech on the steps in front of the office, introducing himself as co-director of the “Our Revolution CT Team.” Durso was formerly the head of the Bernie Sanders for president team in Connecticut.

Loud applause greeted Durso’s words, and a few passersby stopped to hear him talk, and cheered along with the rest of the crowd of 40 or so in attendance. Several advocates spoke of their concerns about Trump and Republican leaders’ plans to dump the Affordable Care Act and other Democratic healthcare initiatives.

Other less publicized programs, such as Husky D, which is Medicaid for low-income adults, are also endangered if Trump and the Republican-led Congress cut federal funding, said Sheldon Toubman, a staff attorney at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association. “If the federal money goes away there is no way to save these programs,” Toubman said. “The state doesn’t have the money.” The Obama administration, congressional Democrats, and advocacy groups have cited the 20 million people covered by the ACA, which has pushed the percentage of Americans without health insurance to record lows.

President-elect Donald Trump has said he wants to replace the Affordable Care Act with a free enterprise system and House Speaker Paul Ryan has indicated that legislation to repeal Obamacare in its entirety will be introduced upon Trump’s taking office. Ryan has added, however, it would take a transitional phase-out period of a few years to buy time to get a replacement law passed and implemented.
Durso ended the rally by imploring Connecticut Republicans to do what their counterparts in Washington may not be willing to do — namely — “Keep your hands off our healthcare!” 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday said he and legislative leaders are working “in good faith” on coming to some sort of agreement on bills to be addressed in a special session of the Legislature, though no date for voting has been set, according to the Albany Times Union.

Cuomo, who spoke with both Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan Wednesday morning, said a special session would be more straightforward than, say, the budget process, which each year is maligned by critics because of closed-door negotiations that lead to agreements that give little time for lawmakers to review in full the bills they are voting on. 

“The special session is actually a much, much better situation than that,” Cuomo said at an unrelated press conference at his Manhattan office. "These are actually fairly straightforward issues. These are not complicated bills. You could read it in a matter of a half an hour. So I don’t think that applies to the special session.”

The one personal priority for the special session Cuomo highlighted was a release of $1 billion in aid for supportive housing to address the sharp rise in homelessness.

Tuesday December 20, 2016 (Thanks to WPKN volunteer Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: talks over how to run a divided Connecticut Senate progress; Connecticut Hospice will Use Marijuana to Reduce Opioid Usage; and, indigent legal services legislation awaits New York Governor’s decision. 

Negotiations over how to share power in an evenly divided Connecticut Senate progressed over the weekend before being suspended Monday as Senate President pro tea Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, broke away to prepare for a kidney transplant Tuesday. Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano of North Haven said Monday night, “We had some exchanges over the weekend and talked again today, so I’m not sure the talks have stalled.”

The 2017 session opens January 4 with votes to resolve two crucial questions:

  -Will Looney be re-elected as president pro tem, a position that traditionally carries the authority to name committee co-chairs and control the agenda?

  -Will the rules be amended to give the GOP a greater say in what bills are debated?

Republicans seem ready to accept the former in exchange for the latter. “All we’re fighting for is a right to have our ideas heard, our ideas voted on, our ideas brought to the table. And that’s what this is about,” Fasano said.

Democrats insist that Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman’s constitutional authority to break tie votes in the Senate extends to an opening day vote for leader. Republicans say if Democrats do not agree to some degree of power sharing they would go to court to challenge Wyman’s ability to break a tie vote in Looney’s favor. “I think that our research shows that’s a very close call,” Fasano said.

On Monday, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Consumer Protection Commissioner Jonathan Harris, and others were at the Connecticut Hospice in Branford to announce that it has been approved by the federal government to conduct comprehensive medical marijuana research to improve pain management and reduce opioid usage in palliative care. The fastest growing population of those addicted to opiates are those 55 and older, Malloy said.

The goals of the medical marijuana research project are to reduce and manage pain, improve overall patient well-being and decrease the use of opioids. Study participants would use the marijuana in conjunction with opiates, with the goal of having the opiate medication lessened. One-third of Americans who have taken prescription opioids for at least two months say they became addicted to, or physically dependent on, the powerful painkillers, according to a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey released earlier this month.

James Prota, vice president and director of pharmacy for The Connecticut Hospice, said the study will also involve examining dosage levels, other constituents and cannabinoids in marijuana.  “We will be studying a whole spectrum of ingredients including cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive compound in marijuana, and the effects they have,” Prota said. Patients will elect whether or not to participate in the research project, and the data collected by the hospice nurses on each shift is non-invasive. State officials have already identified the potential of marijuana for reducing opiates in pain management therapy.

Malloy said the study, along with one just announced where medical marijuana will be used in place of oxycodone at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, are “important” initiatives being undertaken in the state. “I would argue that we have the most comprehensive medical marijuana program in the country,’’ said Malloy, who added, “We took our time and did it right.”

The Albany Times-Union reports:
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has until just before the end of the year to act on legislation sent to him today that would shift the cost of legal services for the poor from counties to the state in the coming years. The indigent legal services bill is one of 13 that was sent to the governor today.
He has until December 30 to act on those bills, otherwise they would automatically become law.

The indigent legal services legislation has been pushed by a number of county-level officials for much of the past year, who have argued that the costs for such services are overburdensome for the counties to shoulder. It’s estimated that with full funding of indigent legal services (advocates maintain they are currently underfunded), the statewide costs are somewhere near $500 million. The bill would shift the full cost of services to the state by 2023.

Whether the governor will sign or veto the bill is unknown, though supporters have been optimistic. It’s possible that the governor could coordinate with the Legislature to pass chapter amendments of some kind should he sign the bill.
Cuomo’s office in recent weeks has said only that the bill is under review.

The legislation would not take effect until April 1, after the next state budget deadline, should the governor approve it.

Monday December 19, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers Melinda Tuhus and Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: Members of Connecticut’s Electoral College Vote for Clinton; New Haven community holds their last weekly vigil of the year seeking Yale University college name change; and, environmental and labor activists urge New York Governor to ‘Take on Trump’ regarding climate issues.

All seven members of the Electoral College in Connecticut today cast their votes for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine. Electors across the country have been receiving letters, emails, and phone calls over the past few weeks encouraging them not to vote for President-elect Donald Trump, who won the election with 306 electoral college votes to Clinton’s 232. Clinton won the popular vote by over 2.8 million votes.

Leading up to today’s vote, many electors who are chosen by the political parties have kept their votes to themselves with the exception of Texas Republican elector Christopher Suprun.  Suprun, in a New York Times editorial, wrote that he will not be voting for Trump and encouraged his fellow electors to consider another candidate, too. 

University of Connecticut Professor Karl Valois said there are 30 states who have passed laws requiring their electors to pledge to vote for candidate who won their state. Over the course of history there have only been 157 “faithless electors” who have voted for someone other than the person they were required to vote for based on their party affiliation and vote. He said those “faithless electors” have never affected the outcome of an election, and there’s never been any legal action taken against them as a result.

Congress will meet on Jan. 6, 2017, to count the electoral votes, according to the U.S. Electoral College.  According to reports this evening, Donald Trump has won more than the necessary 270 electoral votes to become the 45th President of the United States.

Students and members of the larger New Haven community gathered on Friday for their last weekly vigil of the year calling on Yale University to change the name of one of its residential colleges, currently named for slavery owner and white supremacist John Calhoun. 

WPKN’s Melinda Tuhus has more:

On a frigid day, protesters chanted: “We’re out here freezin’ for a reason!” They say the university should not honor Calhoun, who graduated from Yale in YEAR, by naming an undergraduate dorm after him. Yale president Peter Salovey has convened a committee, which recently proposed a process to govern all name changes, but did not address this one specifically.

First-year student Emily Almendarez took a moment from leading chants to say that since the election of Donald Trump to be president, students are of two minds on the name change issue: "They feel there are larger issues to attend to rather than just changing the name. But it is just another manifestation of oppression on campus and in society as a whole, but it has done its part in creating critical dialogue on campus, and now it’s up to the administration to do their part and change it."

The semester ends this week, but protesters vowed to return in January to continue the protests.

Melinda Tuhus, WPKN News

The Albany Times-Union reports:
In what is likely to be a recurring theme in 2017, a coalition of labor and environmental groups on Friday urged New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to stand up to the policies they believe president-elect Donald Trump is about to enact on a national scale.

In this case they want Cuomo to boost funding in his budget plan for more clean energy – both research and development and subsidies. That would be a counter to what they see as Trump’s pro-fossil fuel, climate-change denying stance. While not yet in the Oval Office,Trump has nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, known as a climate change skeptic, to head the EPA, an agency he has previously sued for being too tough on polluters. Others preparing to urge a Trump counter-balance include immigrant and women’s rights groups as well as the public education lobby.

The climate/environment issue may be the farthest along, though, as Trump has not only nominated Pruitt but he wants Texas Gov. Rick Perry in charge of the federal Dept of Energy, even though Perry previously called for its dismantling.

Specifically, the speakers at the demonstration at the Capitol want the governor in his upcoming budget proposal to adopt items in a "Climate Community Protection Act" that passed the Assembly but was stalled in the Senate last session.

Friday December 16, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers Gretchen Swanson, Neil Tolhurst, and Mike Merli.)

Newtown activists visit Washington for the first time since the Presidential election; Governor Dannel P. Malloy tries again to raise the age of young people being tried as juveniles; New York State Attorney General’s Office files suit against six drug makers;  and, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has an old-fashioned (alleged) mob takedown.

On their first visit to Washington since the Presidential election, relatives of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and other incidents of gun violence and their allies asked President-elect Donald Trump to abandon his hard line stance against gun control.

A press conference held yesterday at the U.S. Capitol, organized by the Newtown Foundation and other gun control groups brought together family and friends of the Sandy Hook shooting victims and those victims of gun violence across the nation. There were family members of victims of mass shootings, such as the massacres at Virginia Tech; Orlando, Florida; San Bernardino, California; and Aurora, Colorado; as well as those of gang violence, domestic violence, and suicide. Each promised to “honor with action” the loved ones whom they lost.

Senator Chris Murphy (D – Connecticut) believes it may be tougher than ever in the new Congress to win approval for the gun control measures promoted by advocates seeking to broaden the FBI background checks of gun buyers and ban those on government terrorism watch lists from purchasing weapons. Murphy added that the modern gun control movement did not begin its work until four years ago when Adam Lanza killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “We have to play a lot of catchup,” with the NRA, Murphy said.

Governor Dannel P. Malloy, less than three weeks away from the start of the 2017 General Assembly session, made it clear yesterday that he will once again be pushing hard to pass legislation allowing 18-to-20-year-olds to be tried as juveniles. Malloy made that known in a pitch he gave to the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee (JJPOC) yesterday at the Legislative Office Building.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, fearful it would cost them votes in the November election, believed the legislation was soft on those convicted of crimes. Some were also hesitant about giving younger people the ability to have their cases decided in a juvenile court that is not open to the public.

But Malloy said that now is not the time to quit fighting the good fight, stating that: “We are at the lowest crime rate in Connecticut in 50 years. We have the lowest prison population rate in 22 years.” He added that all the numbers, trends, and studies indicate that the state’s efforts to push juveniles towards rehabilitation and not jail are working.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office said Thursday New York is one of 20 states that have filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against six generic drug makers. It alleges they entered into illegal conspiracies to affect the market for an antibiotic and an oral diabetes medication. The lawsuit claims the companies conspired to unreasonably restrain trade, artificially inflate and manipulate prices, and reduce competition in the United States for doxycycline hyclate delayed release, the antibiotic, and glyburide, the oral diabetes drug.

Heritage Pharmaceuticals, Aurobindo Pharma USA, Citron Pharma, Mayne Pharma, Mylan Pharmaceuticals and Teva Pharmaceuticals USA are being targeted by the lawsuit.
Schneiderman’s office added that an investigation related to a number of additional generic drugs is ongoing.

The lawsuit alleges senior executives and subordinate marketing and sales executives coordinated to reduce competition with knowledge that their conduct was illegal. After learning of the investigation, they sought to avoid communicating in writing or deleted written communications.

Schneiderman said: “Generic drugs play a critical role in moderating healthcare costs for all New Yorkers … Companies that collude and fix prices for generic drugs in order to pad their profits must be held accountable for the very real harm they inflict on New Yorkers’ ability to pay for life-saving medications.”

According to the Albany Times-Union, yesterday New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and New York City Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill announced the arrest and indictment of thirteen individuals allegedly affiliated with the Genovese Organized Crime Family:

Salvatore DeMeo, Eugene Orefice, Gennaro Geritano, 
Anthony Giammarino, Joseph Tommasino, Thomas Alexiou, Rocco Maglione, Windsor Lewis, Mario Leonardi, Vincent Taliercio, Jackie Charlton, Michael Epstein and John Giglio

All charges stem from the alleged operation of lucrative loan sharking and gambling activities. Geritano and Leonardi were also charged in a second indictment: evasion of state and city excise taxes through the sale of more than thirty thousand unlawfully stamped cigarettes.

This represents the conclusion of “Operation Shark Bait,” a long-term investigation into the alleged loan sharking and bookmaking activities of alleged Genovese ‘made member’ Salvatore DeMeo and alleged Genovese ‘associates,’ or ‘non-made’ members, Gennaro Geritano, Eugene Orefice and Anthony “Buckwheat” Giammarino, among others. 

Schneiderman said: “Loan sharks shamelessly saddle their victims with outrageous loan rates that are impossible to repay. These defendants allegedly went to great lengths to trap their victims.” The charges against the defendants are merely allegations. All defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty in a court of law.

Thursday December 15, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteer Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: Connecticut Unemployment Rate Drops to 4.7% in November; Connecticut Spending Cap Commission Unable To Reach Consensus; and, First U.S. Offshore Wind Farm Comes Online at Block Island, as Long Island Waits for LIPA Decision.

The Connecticut Labor Department announced today that the unemployment rate dropped to 4.7%, and the State grew 2,100 new jobs in November. It’s the first month of growth following five months of job losses. The 7,200 jobs lost in October was revised upward by 1,400 to a smaller loss of 5,800 jobs. That means over the past five months Connecticut has lost 11,400 jobs. Over the last 12 months, the state increased non-farm employment by 1,400 positions or 0.1%, according to the Labor Department. 

In November, private sector employment increased by 1,200 and remains up by 2,500 jobs over the year. The government supersector, which includes all federal, state and local employment, grew by 900 jobs last month, but remains down over the year by about 1,100 jobs. Don Klepper-Smith, an economist with DataCore Partners, described the job gains in November as “a small step in the right direction.” 

However, there’s also a sense that the Department of Labor revisions for 2016 will show larger job losses. The job gains Connecticut made in 2015 were cut in half after they were adjusted. Klepper-Smith said the recent trends in non-farm employment are a major concern. He said “persistent weakness in CT’s labor markets has to be addressed from a policy standpoint.”

Proving just how difficult it may be for a supermajority of the Connecticut legislature to approve a spending cap, a 23-member commission that has been working on a recommendation for close to a year was unable to reach an agreement. The Spending Cap Commission was able to find more consensus on the definition of inflation and personal income, but when it came to what spending should fall under the cap they couldn’t quite get there. The proposal failed by an 11-12 vote earlier this week.

William Cibes, former Office of Policy and Management secretary under Lowell P. Weicker and co-chair of the Spending Cap Commission, said despite their best efforts they were unable to reach agreement. He said one proposal would pick up votes, while other proposals would lose votes.

Although they couldn’t reach an agreement, the legislature will receive a narrative of the commission’s agreements and disagreements on the various aspects of the spending cap. Cibes said: “I regret we weren’t able to come to a conclusion. I think the proposals that were recommended could serve as a basis for action by the General Assembly.”

The Rhode Island offshore wind developer Deepwater Wind has turned on the switch on the first offshore wind project in the country, which is now powering Block Island. Deepwater Wind’s proposed Deepwater ONE project in the waters 30 miles off of Montauk, which was slated to provide power to the East End, is still awaiting a bid award decision from the Long Island Power Authority.

The Deepwater ONE project had been expected to be approved in July of this year, but was postponed at the last minute because LIPA was awaiting the publication of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s blueprint for the state’s Offshore Wind Master Plan. That document was completed in early fall, but LIPA has not yet made a decision on the Deepwater ONE project.

While LIPA representatives did not respond immediately to a request for comment on the bid award process, they said at the time the vote was rescheduled that “LIPA remains committed to its renewable energy goals and meeting the energy needs of the South Fork.” The Block Island Wind Farm, a small project consisting of five 6-megawatt General Electric Haliade wind turbines, became a fiscally viable option due to the high cost of trucking fuel oil for electricity production to the island, which has some of the highest electric rates in the country.

In 2013, Deepwater Wind won a 30-year lease to 256 square miles of offshore federal lands about 30 miles off the coast of Montauk, where they plan to install 15 6-megawatt turbines. They have room there to install up to 200 turbines, if a utility company agrees to buy the electricity they produce.

Wednesday December 14, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteer Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: Low Fuel Costs Hurting Environmental Efforts in Connecticut; Housing in Connecticut 2016 report shows progress and problems; and, New York State Environmental Protection Fund grants $500,000 for EPCAL Bike Path.

Efforts to encourage Connecticut residents to use greener energy sources are being hampered by the low cost of traditional fuels, a group of experts told an environmentally conscious audience at the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters Environmental Summit this week. William Dornbos, one of the panelists said that people are driving more and gas prices are dropping, and this isn’t good for pushing a clean energy agenda.

Also on the panel was Bryan Garcia, president and chief executive officer of the Connecticut Green Bank, an organization that attracts private investment in clean energy projects; John Humphries, organizer for the CT Roundtable, an organization that advocates for both creating local jobs and protecting the climate; and, Leah Schmalz, who oversees CFE Save the Sound, a group that addresses threats to the state’s environment. The group held a discussion on “The Connecticut Climate Action Plan,” talking about major strategies to reach emission goals and the hurdles in light of federal uncertainty facing the states.

Dornbos circulated a report from the Acadia Center that showed Connecticut’s share of New England’s electricity consumption is “not forecast to decline as quickly as other states in the region, particularly in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont.” 

In a time when environmentalists believe Connecticut should be looking to use greener energy forms, such as solar power, there are many traditional energy initiatives being pushed, such as natural gas plants. The reason, according to Dornbos, is money. “Market economics favor natural gas plants,” Dornbos said. “Gas plants are the power plant of choice.”

When audience members asked the panel what they could do to keep Connecticut on the right track – when it comes to pushing the green energy initiative, Humphries suggested using public transportation, bicycling instead of driving and purchasing an electric vehicle.

The 6th Annual Housing in Connecticut report by Partnership for Strong Communities has been released, it states:

“Housing in Connecticut in 2016 is a tale of two realities: enormous progress that has produced an effective end to veteran homelessness and substantial strides toward ending chronic homelessness, along with thousands of new affordable homes. Yet high prices for housing and cost burdens for hundreds of thousands of households continue.”

The findings of the report are both stirring and subdued:

The 6th year of the Malloy Administration has seen the Governor and General Assembly register notable, nation-leading progress: Connecticut became the second state to end veterans’ homelessness and remains on track to end chronic homelessness.

The Department of Housing reported in November that it had produced 1,028 new units in 2016, 929 of them affordable, for a total of 8,572 affordable homes since 2011.

The 2016 Point-in-Time (PIT) census of homelessness showed a 20% drop in chronic homelessness since 2015.

Since January 2015, CT has housed more than 1,100 individuals experiencing chronic homelessness.

Yet, slight improvement in both wage disparity and Connecticut’s ranking in median monthly housing costs was nevertheless outweighed by:

An increase to $24.72/hour in the state’s housing wage – what a worker must earn to afford a typical 2-bedroom apartment in Connecticut – from $23.02 in 2014, just two years earlier.

Virtually no change in the number of households paying 30% or more of their income for housing, officially “burdened” by their housing costs, while a quarter of a million households remained “severely burdened,” spending more than 50% of their income on housing.

Release of the United Way of Connecticut’s updated ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) Report in the summer of 2016 indicated housing remains a primary barrier to family success. Working individuals and families earning less than the “survival budget” for ALICE comprised 38% of all Connecticut households, up from 35% in 2012. Housing was the single highest monthly cost for individuals and second highest for families, trailing only child care.

Still, the bottom line is positive. Concerted effort led by Gov. Malloy, the General Assembly, housing advocates, developers, and officials in many municipalities have expanded the number of affordable units in Connecticut in 2015 to 172,556, a 2% increase from the previous year.

New York State has granted $500,000 in funding for a bicycle and recreation path at EPCAL, the former Grumman plant in Calverton. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the award, which is a grant from the state Environmental Protection Fund, late last week.

The path, named the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Trail, has been in the works since 2008, and has already been the recipient of a $100,000 grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, $150,000 in state funding allocated through the efforts of State Senator Ken LaValle and $200,000 in Suffolk County funding at the request of Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski.

A 3.2-mile section of asphalt-paved bike path leads from the ball fields across Route 25 from the Calverton National Cemetery, along the perimeter of the EPCAL property. The extension of the path would more than double its length, built over an abandoned gravel driveway that was cleared as a security road by the Grumman Corporation in the 1950s.

“This is a major achievement that will pay great dividends for runners in the Town of Riverhead and all over eastern Long Island,” said Mike Polansky, Greater Long Island Running Club President.

Tuesday December 13, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN Volunteer Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: Connecticut U.S. Senator Chris Murphy is skeptical about proposed changes to Social Security; Experts say Connecticut Water Conservation Efforts Would Be More Effective If Mandated By Municipalities; and, New York Officials endorse $4.3 billion, three-year state-aid proposal for schools.

Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson, a Texas Republican, introduced legislation last week that he said will permanently save Social Security, even though President-elect Donald Trump promised to leave the program alone. In order to close Social Security’s long-term funding gap, Johnson would reduce Social Security benefits for all but the lowest earners, rapidly raise the retirement age for younger people decades away from retiring and reduce the annual cost-of-living adjustment. 

Due to the retirement of the baby boomer generation, Social Security faces financial strain in the coming years. Conservatives like Johnson favor closing this funding gap by reducing benefits. Many Democrats and moderate Republicans would rather address it entirely through revenue increases, such as lifting the cap on earnings subject to Social Security taxes. “I urge my colleagues to also put pen to paper and offer their ideas about how they would save Social Security for generations to come,” Johnson said. 

Johnson’s fellow senator, Connecticut’s Chris Murphy, a Democrat, isn’t a fan of the bill. “It’s pretty wild that when people are panicking about not having enough money for retirement, Republicans in Congress would propose to privatize and cut Social Security,” Murphy said. 

“By moving to a more means-tested approach, the proposal undermines broad political support for Social Security,” Fred V. Carstensen, professor of Finance and Economics at the University of Connecticut, said. Additionally, Carstensen said, increasing the retirement age is very much to the benefit of higher-income, white collar workers because lower income workers typically perform more physically demanding jobs, have more health problems and are less able to continue working into their 60’s and 70’s. “Mortality statistics reveal an increasing divide among Americans based on socio-economic status. So raising the retirement age while claiming to help those most in need is contradictory,” Carstensen said.

Taking proactive measures to battle continuing drought conditions in Connecticut is better left to municipalities than utility companies, is what environmentalists and an audience of state officials and legislators heard from experts Tuesday. A panel discussion on “Protecting Our State’s Waters’’ covered a range of subjects pertaining to water usage at the 16th annual Connecticut League of Conservation Voters Environmental Summit held at the Riverfront Boathouse.

One of the four panelists, David Radka, director of Water Resources and Planning for the Connecticut Water Company, said: “When push comes to shove, municipalities have more control’’ over how much water people use than utilities. Radka added that “precious few’’ municipalities have exerted that control to help the state out of its water crisis, stating the town of Greenwich was an exception. Back in September, Greenwich officials passed a water shortage ordinance, which among other things, imposed a $90 fine for residents who watered their lawns with automatic irrigation methods. The ordinance also prohibited residents from using water to flush driveways, sidewalks, decks or other outside areas, and banned the washing of cars and windows, among other restrictions.

Greenwich is in Fairfield County, one of the areas in the state impacted most by the dry conditions. Connecticut issued its first-ever Drought Watch in October for counties in western and central Connecticut, including Fairfield, Hartford, Litchfield, Middlesex, Tolland and New Haven counties. Those counties are being asked to reduce their use of water by 15% . Windham and New London counties are under a Drought Advisory and being asked to reduce their water usage by 10%. Another water panelist on Tuesday was David Sutherland, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut chapter. Sutherland said the problem with controlling water use is that, “Even in non-drought years, we are seeing longer periods of droughts interspersed with rain or snow events … It makes managing water use all the more challenging,” added Sutherland. 

Even though the state has had a few days of steady rainfall over the past few weeks, it isn’t near enough to make up for the extended dry periods, according to Douglas Glowacki, emergency management program specialist for the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. To date, 20 water companies have requested voluntary conservation or imposed mandatory restrictions. A continually updated list of these water companies is available on the Department of Public Health’s website.

According to Newsday, New York state education officials on Monday endorsed a $4.3 billion, three-year phase-in of school “foundation” aid focused on the needs of poorer districts statewide, including on Long Island and in New York City. The funding proposal would allot a total of $2.1 billion for the 2017-18 school year alone. That would include $1.8 billion in foundation aid, together with increased money for English language instruction, prekindergarten classes and teacher training. The package, approved unanimously by a state Board of Regents subcommittee, is expected to win approval from the full board and then be submitted to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators, who have the final say over state budgets. The Cuomo administration so far has committed itself only to a $1.1 billion aid hike for schools next year.

Estimates of how different regions of the state might fare under accelerated increases in foundation-aid money, based on 2015-16 school-spending figures, showed New York City gaining about $1.6 billion, or the equivalent of 6.4 percent of the system’s total spending, and Long Island gaining $795 million, or 6.8% of spending among the Island’s 124 districts.

Distribution of foundation-aid money in Nassau and Suffolk counties would vary widely from district to district, depending upon their relative wealth or poverty. For example, 18 districts could receive aid infusions equivalent to 10% or more of their spending, while 36 districts could lose money.

Walter Schartner, superintendent of Sayville schools, said his district could stand to lose as much as $4.2 million in aid unless state lawmakers agree to extend “save harmless” provisions to ensure that school systems receive at least as much state money as they got in the past. Otherwise, he said, the impact would be seen in local tax bills.“That’s an 8.25% increase for our taxpayers,” Schartner said.

Monday December 12, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteer Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: Controversial Connecticut Labor Group Disbands Post-Election; Business Community Applauds Connecticut Pension Agreement; and, Suffolk County Executive joins with advocates in support of diversity and tolerance.

Labor United for Connecticut, the independent expenditure group that came under fire for its attack ads targeting Republicans, terminated its organization and refunded $109,384 to its member unions.  In October, the group came under attack for a series of digital ads that were harshly criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike. The ad campaign tried to tie candidates for the state legislature to Republican Donald Trump and asked them to stop “attacks on women and families.” The ad, which targeted a dozen Republican candidates, was especially offensive to Dr. William A. Petit, Jr., whose wife and two daughters were brutally murdered in 2007 during a home invasion.

Petit ended up winning the seat, helping Republicans pick up eight seats in the house and shrinking the Democratic majority to 79 to 72.The Labor United for Connecticut ad campaign was pulled on October 26 and never resumed.

Citing its inability to coordinate with an independent expenditure group, the Service Employees International Union which was affiliated with Labor United for Connecticut said it was not made aware of the ad campaign before it aired. Paul Filson, executive director of the SEIU Connecticut State Council, resigned on October 27 because of the ad campaign and public pressure. Even union coalitions like the AFL-CIO were critical of the ads. 

SEIU declined comment on the decision to terminate the group and refund the money. The group, which formed in September, had raised about $198,000 for the 2016 election, mostly from other union organizations.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was praised by the Hartford business community Monday for the agreement he reached last week with a union coalition to avoid a spike in pension payments for state employees. Webster Bank Chairman and CEO Jim Smith said businesses want stability and the pension agreement helps move the state in the right direction.

It’s not necessarily a celebration, according to Smith, because the annual contribution to the pension fund will increase over the next few years, but not by as much as it would have if nothing was done. “It is a bullet dodged. It’s an indication of just how deep the hole is we all want to dig out together,” Smith said in remarks at the MetroHartford Alliance Rising Star Breakfast at the Hartford Hilton Monday morning.

In introducing the governor, Smith said Malloy has had to deal with the “ghosts of legislatures past and some governors past, who curried favor and votes and hurt the taxpayers in the process by making overly generous promises to our state workers and then not funding those promises for decades.” The contribution the state is required to make to the state employees pension system has grown from $800 million to nearly $1.6 billion since Malloy was first elected in 2010. Smith said the annually required contribution next year is almost the same amount as the $1.3 to $1.5 billion deficit the state is facing in 2018.

Like any labor agreement the General Assembly can allow it to go into effect 30 days after it convenes in January or hold a vote on the contract. Generally, the only reason to hold a vote on a contract would be to vote down the agreement. “On its face, it appears that this agreement takes a balanced approach to ensuring that Connecticut meets its long-term obligations while reflecting the reality of financial markets,” Adam Joseph, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic caucus, said Friday. House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said it “is a great step toward increasing stability and managing the long-term obligations of the state, and shows the willingness by all parties to come together for the benefit of Connecticut taxpayers and the health of our future economy.”

Newsday reports:
Citing “some concerning acts” of hate in the county, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone joined on Monday with advocates from various race, ethnic and religious communities to reiterate his support for diversity and tolerance. “We gather today ... to stand in solidarity, together, against actions of hate,” Bellone said, as the county marked the Dec. 10 international observance of Human Rights Day. “We are fully prepared to tackle any extremist movements and prevent the spread of hate crimes in this region.” 

He credited a reduction in hate crime last year to ongoing outreach to diverse communities and the work of county agencies, such as the Human Rights Commission, and partnerships with community groups. Suffolk went from 87 hate crime incidents in 2014 to 69 reported in 2015, down from a high of 111 cases in 2012. Bellone said he wants the county to remain vigilant after recent instances in the county such as the distribution of “paraphernalia” from the Klu Klux Klan or the painting of a swastika “over the last couple of months.”

“All acts of hate and violence will be investigated to the fullest extent of the law. I can guarantee you that here in Suffolk County,” said Bellone.

Walter Barrientos, Long Island organizer with Latino-advocacy group Make The Road New York in Brentwood, said he was encouraged by Bellone’s commitment but would like to see a more concrete effort involving law enforcement as well. Dawn Lott, the Human Rights Commission’s executive director, encouraged county residents to stand “for the rights of others” and to report suspected instances of discrimination to her agency and crimes to the police department.

Friday December 9, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers Gretchen Swanson and Mike Merli.)

In the news tonight: new report will help guide Connecticut legislation on electronic cigarettes; Governor Malloy and Unions come up with a plan to alleviate pension cliff; Uber and Lyft announce 70 business supporters throughout New York state; and; Democratic leader in New York Calls Debate Over Senate Control a “Circus”.

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network says a new report from the U.S. Surgeon General on the growing popularity of electronic cigarettes among the nation’s youth is a “call to action to take precautionary measures.” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s report states that e-cigarettes now are the most commonly used tobacco product among youth.

Among the findings in the 298-page report are: among middle and high school students, e-cigarette use has more than tripled since 2011; among young adults 18-24, e-cigarette use more than doubled from 2013 to 2014. The new report, the first federal report on the topic, concludes that e-cigarette use by younger populations is also strongly associated with the use of other tobacco products as well, including cigarettes.

Lawmakers on the Public Health Committee were urged back in May to pass new and tougher legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session to regulate electronic cigarettes and vapor products in Connecticut. Already they passed legislation prohibiting people from smoking e-cigarettes and other vapor products in state buildings, restaurants, schools and other facilities.

Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, called the new report a call to action, and urged lawmakers to reject the tobacco industry’s requests to undo several key aspects of the FDA’s oversight authority including allowing e-cigarettes and cigars to remain on store shelves without an initial FDA public health review.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy and a coalition representing state employees reached an agreement today that they say will help avoid years of steep increases in the state’s pension payment obligations leading up to a “cliff” in 2032. 

The plan, which does not impact the benefit levels for state employees, would increase the state’s contribution over the next decade, but not as much as it would have to grow if the state did nothing. If the state does nothing, the annual contribution would have to exceed $6 billion in 2032. In order for the state to meet those obligations, it would have to drastically cut services and/or increase taxes to unprecedented levels. The state’s annual contribution to the pension fund is already $1.5 billion.Under the new agreement, it would increase at the most to around $2.3 billion annually.

The plan, which uses different actuarial techniques to smooth the escalating peak in payment obligations, also moves about $10 billion owed before 2032 into the future on a separate, 30-year amortization schedule.

State Comptroller Kevin Lembo, who put forward his own proposals to reduce the spending requirements, said he’s glad Malloy and the unions reached an agreement and he is reviewing it.

On a conference call yesterday, Uber and Lyft announced some 70 businesses are backing their effort to get ride-hailing services approved upstate.

The group called New Yorkers for Ride Sharing said they were responding to Governor Cuomo’s call for support for the applications that connect riders to drivers who use their own cars. Although the group lists at least 16 Capital Region supporters, none were on the conference call. Instead they had two people from Buffalo, one each from Rochester and Kingston, and an environmental group representing Long Island.

All cited a host of reasons oft repeated for approving Uber, Lyft and the like: trouble with taxi service; opportunities to earn extra cash; and the embarrassment of visiting friends learning that New York doesn’t have the service.

According to the Albany Times Union, Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein said on Thursday that the public debate over New York Senate control “has become a circus,” and he will not have any part of it. Klein railed against pleas for Governor Andrew Cuomo to intervene alongside efforts to unify Democrats in the State Senate.

Klein said: “I find it embarrassing for anyone to suggest that the New York State Senate is incapable of choosing its own leadership. Asking the executive branch to step over its boundaries and dictate control of the State Senate runs counter to the separation of powers.” He called the debate an example of a kind of “dysfunctional public display that has voters asking, where is the leadership?”

Predictions indicate there will be 32 Democratic members in the Senate for the upcoming session. But, internal fractures among Democrats mean they are not necessarily in a position to uniformly control legislation.

The back-and-forth over state Senate control started a week ago. Democratic Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and various progressive groups called on Cuomo to help unify Democrats in the Senate. She said: “This is not about picking leaders but uniting the party and serving all New Yorkers.”

Thursday December 8, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteer Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: Think Tanks Debate Connecticut State Employee Compensation in Dueling Reports; Connecticut Lawmakers and Policy Experts Tackle deficit for Popular Childcare Subsidy Program; East End schools to benefit from farm-to-school grants; and, New York makes more changes to grow medical marijuana program.

A nonpartisan think tank is slamming a year-old report published by the Hartford-based Yankee Institute for Public Policy, sparking a contentious debate about public-sector versus private-sector compensation in Connecticut. Published in October 2015, the Yankee Institute-commissioned study by Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the nonpartisan, nonprofit American Enterprise Institute, found public-sector employees in Connecticut, on average, earn slightly less in annual salaries than private-sector workers, but receive benefits averaging more than $54,000 - compared with just $29,400 for private-sector workers.

This week, the Washington, DC-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI), another nonpartisan think tank, criticized the report, saying Biggs made various errors in his calculations.
Among its complaints, EPI says Biggs “cherry-picked” the sample of workers he examined,  excluded the pay of most public-sector workers in the state and incorporated a “selective use of controls” in his analysis. 

On Wednesday, Yankee Institute President Carol Platt Liebau defended Biggs’ report in a statement, saying, “We are flattered that a year after Yankee Institute released ‘Unequal Pay: Public vs. Private Sector Compensation in Connecticut,’ the Economic Policy Institute, a national left-wing group, felt it necessary to attack our study.” She continued, “Given EPI’s union ties, perhaps it’s entirely predictable that it would try to rebut the study.” The study looked only at state workers, not local ones, she noted, and was intended to help find “common sense ways” to alleviate the state’s “budget mess.” 

Meanwhile, union leaders in Connecticut praised EPI for shedding light on what they feel is an important topic.  

Connecticut Lawmakers, policy experts and advocates gathered Wednesday at the Legislative Office Building to see if they could find a solution to the funding deficiencies facing a popular childcare subsidy program. The Care4Kids program, which helps subsidize childcare for low-income working parents who make under 50% of the state median income, started experiencing a deficiency earlier this year when the federal government made changes to the program. Over the past few weeks, the state Office of Early Childhood closed enrollment to new applicants who are teen parents and families who have received state assistance in the past, in order to erase about $1.5 million of the $6.1 million deficiency.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration has said it’s working on closing any remaining deficiency and believes at least $2 million can be erased with unspent money for preschool slots. The remaining $2.6 million will likely be erased in the normal course of running the program.

Merrill Gay, executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, said childcare can easily be a family’s largest expense. He said, with two children under the age of five, it’s likely that families will be paying more per month for childcare than for housing. He said he’s aware the state is facing a large budget deficit next year, but that means the state really needs to think about its priorities. “The Early Childhood Alliance clearly believes that keeping children out of poverty by making it possible for their parents to work has to be a priority,” Gay said. Care4Kids is a “critical piece” of ensuring children don’t fall into poverty.

Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, who co-chairs the Human Services Committee, said from the legislature’s point of view not fully funding this program is not an option for the state. “This is a program that cannot be on the chopping block,” Abercrombie said. “The reality is these are working families.” Abercrombie said a small bipartisan group of lawmakers will be meeting to find a solution before the 2017 legislative session starts in January.

School cafeterias in several East End school districts will soon feature more local produce after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that two districts are among those awarded a farm-to-school grant, as reported by Newsday. The Southampton School District will receive $94,863 for the program and the Greenport School District will receive $68,820.

Statewide, the awards, totaling $500,000, will be used to hire farm-to-school coordinators; train food service staff; provide nutrition education in classrooms and cafeterias; purchase equipment to support food preparation; and increase the volume and variety of local specialty crops, such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and herbs used in school lunches.

The Albany Times-Union reports:
The state continued Thursday to make changes intended to expand access to medical marijuana, as five manufacturers statewide wrap up their first year of selling the new medicines to the public.

Medical marijuana manufacturers will be allowed to wholesale their medicines to competitors, after submitting proposals to the state, the Health Department announced. The state is also lifting its five-brand cap on the number of products a medical marijuana company can sell. These changes will help ensure medical marijuana is available regardless of crop yield, the Health Department said.

Wednesday December 7, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteer Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: Connecticut U.S. Rep. Jim Himes Wants Congress to Reclaim War Power;
University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst Stops Short Of Declaring UConn A Sanctuary Campus; New York prepares legal action against EPA over proposed dumping; and, Feds plan to shelve Asharoken beach restoration.

Connecticut U.S. Rep. Jim Himes recently introduced the Reclamation of War Powers Act because he is worried that “we’ll have foreign policy by Twitter” under President-elect Donald Trump. He claims the bill would return the power to wage war back to Congress. “The need for this authority is more urgent right now than ever before,” Himes said. “We have checks and balances in place when it comes to all kinds of policy-making but not on war-making.”

The power to make and execute war is granted to Congress in Article I section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. “Congress should have reasserted its war-making authority a long time ago, and I have voted to make that happen even under President Obama, but it’s more important to do it now that we’re going to have such a volatile President in the White House,” Himes said. Himes said Congress, since World War II, has increasingly abdicated its authority over declaring war to the President, whether the President was a Republican or a Democrat.

Denying that he is targeting Republicans, and specifically, Trump, Himes, a Democrat, said he has clashed in the past with Obama about the President using the Authorization for Use of Military Force reasoning to go to war with ISIS, without Congressional approval, even though Himes stressed he supports the action. He also said he doesn’t expect his bill to be acted on by the lame duck Congress which concludes its work in a few weeks and he knows it will be tough to get it passed in the new Congress, with a Republican majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst stopped short of declaring UConn a sanctuary campus Tuesday in a university wide email to students. She said designating its campuses as “sanctuaries” for undocumented students may be “misleading to the very students we are seeking to support.”

Following Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States several universities, including Wesleyan University in Middletown, have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented students. “There have been calls for universities to designate themselves as ‘sanctuary’ campuses or cities,” Herbst wrote. “Though the term has been defined and interpreted in many different ways, as a state agency, UConn does not have the authority to unilaterally apply this designation to itself. The university must adhere to state and federal law.”

However, Herbst said that UConn and its police force is “doing those things which are the essential elements of the sanctuary policies that have been adopted in several large U.S. cities.” Essentially under the policy, university police will not ask about individuals’ immigration status, will not detain anyone based solely on immigration status, will not make arrests based on warrants issued by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) and will not disclose department records containing information on a person’s immigration status unless compelled to by law, according to Herbst’s email. 

In this regard, the policy of the UConn Police is similar to that of the New Haven Police Department, which operates in a sanctuary city, Herbst said in the email. Additionally, UConn does not collect information on undocumented students’ immigration status and will rely on the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act to deny requests for information that may identify undocumented students without a warrant, subpoena or court order.

New York State is preparing to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over its decision to permanently allow dumping of dredged material in the Long Island Sound, according to a press release from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.

“As I have said time and again, New York is deeply concerned with the EPA’s efforts to designate a permanent dumping site in the eastern part of the Long Island Sound,” Mr. Cuomo said in his statement Tuesday. “Continuing to use this precious economic and ecological resource as a dumping ground is unacceptable and — on behalf of current and future generations of New Yorkers — we intend to fight this decision using any and all legal means.” The state’s pushback came on the same day as the EPA’s final ruling to designate the eastern Long Island Sound site a disposal area for materials pulled up by dredging projects in Connecticut and elsewhere.

While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said the waste will be tested for toxins before being dumped into the sound, environmental advocates still fear the process will affect water quality. In 2005, the EPA set up a goal of reducing or eliminating dredge dumps in Long Island Sound. The latest plan to allow new dump sites in waters off Southold Town “contradicts this agreement,” Mr. Cuomo stated. The governor also said the state will sue the EPA under the federal Ocean Dumping Act, a 1972 law that limits or prevents dumping that would or could pose a threat to human health and welfare, the marine environment or local economies.

New York State must now wait 60 days from the EPA’s ruling before filing a legal claim against the agency under the Ocean Dumping Act, officials said.

Newsday reports:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is shelving plans to bring before Congress a multimillion-dollar proposal to restore Asharoken’s shoreline unless and until the village agrees to the agency’s conditions, village and federal officials said.

Mayor Greg Letica explained the latest developments at a packed village meeting Tuesday night, where many people voiced their opposition to the project. It has been controversial due to a requirement that would force many residents to allow public access on their private property. Letica said officials still would proceed with a resident survey and a public hearing on the issue, both of which would inform the board’s final decision on whether to support the more than $20 million beach restoration.

Corps officials said they will complete the project’s feasibility study — a mandatory prerequisite to the project that would determine its final cost and scope — by the end of December. But agency officials said they will deem the report “negative” because of the lack of support from the village and therefore won’t complete many of the final steps of the study, including submitting it to Congress for authorization to build.

Tuesday December 6, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteer Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: Energy was More Affordable this Year, but Future is Uncertain in Connecticut; Connecticut Comptroller’s Office Flooded With Calls and Emails Following Inquiry Into Mississippi Group’s Policies; and, New York Assembly Democrats renominate Carl Heastie to serve as speaker.

Connecticut’s energy affordability gap decreased over the past year but only because energy costs were lower. It’s a trend that isn’t likely to last, experts who monitor utility costs for the needy warned Tuesday. There is now a $399 million energy affordability gap for state households with incomes at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, according to an annual report by Operation Fuel. 

The affordability gap is the portion of their energy bills that 322,000 households in Connecticut can’t afford to pay, not the entire amount they owe. The $399 million figure is $71 million less than the $470 million figure in 2015. On average, each of the 322,000 households owes about $1,241 more in annual energy bills than they can afford to pay, according to the report. “Even though prices were lower this past year, there still is a significant gap between what lower-income households pay for energy bills and what they actually can afford to pay,” Karen E. Adamson, Operation Fuel’s executive director, said. But the long run on lower fuel costs is likely to end. “Costs are anticipated this winter to increase,” Adamson said.

Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, who is co-chairman of the Energy and Technology Committee, said fuel assistance is needed by families in not just the larger, poorer cities, but also the smaller, more affluent towns. “In my own community of Branford, 17 families were helped by Operation Fuel last year,” Reed said. Operation Fuel is Connecticut’s only year-round, statewide nonprofit emergency assistance program. This past fiscal year, Operation Fuel provided over $3.18 million in energy assistance to more than 7,705 Connecticut households.

Also at Tuesday’s press conference was Rick Porth, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Connecticut. Porth said the affordability gap report and the work Operation Fuel does as a result of it “shines a light” on a big problem in the state, stating the United Way “received 25,000 phone calls last year” from people asking for some sort of assistance in paying their utility bills. Roger D. Colton, who authored the affordability gap report, was in attendance at the press conference, and said state politicians – and those in Washington, too – need to act to assist those in need of help paying heating bills.

After asking a Christian organization that’s against LGBTQ rights for more information about how it conforms with Connecticut’s nondiscrimination clause to qualify for state employee payroll deductions, state Comptroller Kevin Lembo became the group’s newest target. The American Family Association, a Mississippi-based group that is known for its anti-gay and anti-transgender boycotts of businesses, is flooding Lembo’s office with calls and emails. As of 3 p.m. Tuesday, Lembo said his office had received 4,455 emails from people associated with AFA. The emails say all sorts of things and the “vast majority are nice and measured,” Lembo said. However, about 10% are “nasty.”

Lembo said it’s obvious they have been given misinformation about the state’s efforts to obtain information from the group. Last week, Lembo, who is Connecticut’s first openly gay constitutional officer, announced that his office was investigating whether the group conforms with the anti-discrimination policy for the Connecticut State Employee Campaign for Charitable Giving program. Lembo said the group signed the anti-discrimination clause, but their website seems to offer a different story. He pointed to the boycott of Target because it allows its transgender shoppers and employees to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Lembo also pointed out that the group has denounced Zales, a nationwide jewelry chain, for “normalizing sin” by advertising wedding bands for same-sex couples. “The AFA has also spoken out against gay and Muslim individuals service in the U.S. military, and has equated homosexuality with pedophilia, disease and violence,” Lembo wrote. “These actions and statements are extremely troubling to me—not only as an openly gay father and spouse—but as administrator of the CSEC.”

The American Family Association of Mississippi, which the Southern Poverty Law Center described in 2011 as part of the “most important anti-gay lobby in this country,” is on an approved list of tax deductible donations for state employees. The headline on the AFA website on Tuesday afternoon read: “Christophobia in Connecticut” above a photo of Lembo. The story, by Brian Fischer, says Lembo is infringing on their religious freedom to stand “for a biblical view of sexuality, marriage and family.” The AFA is calling on Lembo to retract the “accusatory letter he has published and to issue an apology to AFA for his religious prejudice and bigotry,” Fischer writes. 

As far as keeping the group on the list of charities, Lembo said AFA has not submitted the information he requested in his Nov. 30 letter. Lembo has asked AFA to provide written documentation of its stated policy of non-discrimination and documentation affirming that AFA is in compliance with all federal and state laws regarding equal employment opportunity and public accommodations with respect to its programs, clients, officers, employees, and volunteers. Lembo also asked that AFA provide documentation demonstrating that  AFA is engaged in the delivery of charitable and public health, welfare, environmental, conservation, or service purposes. “They twisted around my request for information into an assault on Christianity,” Lembo said. He said not a single one of the emails or phone calls he received has come from a Connecticut resident.

New York Assembly Democrats on Tuesday renominated Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to serve as speaker for the 2017-18 legislative session. Heastie will formally be up for election when session begins in January, though Democrats have enough members to easily re-elect him on their own without Republicans, who likely will cast ballots for Minority Leader Brian Kolb.

Heastie was elected after the fall of former Speaker Sheldon Silver in late January 2015 following his arrest on corruption charges. Silver has since been convicted and expelled from the Assembly, though he continues to appeal his conviction.

A Siena College poll released on Monday showed that Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, had a 10% favorable versus 15% unfavorable rating among voters statewide while 75% of voters reported not knowing who he is.

 Monday December 5, 2016  (Thanks To WPKN volunteer Liz Becker.)

In the news tonight: State Comptroller Sums Up Connecticut’s Budget Crisis for
Business Leaders; New York Governor Signs Legislation Allowing East Hampton To Finance Its Own Airport Operations; and, Feds say ‘I Love N.Y.’ signs have to go.

Last week in Norwalk, State Comptroller Kevin Lembo addressed members of Imagine Connecticut, a group of business leaders devoted to putting Connecticut in the top 10 states for job creation in 10 years. The subject was the State’s economy. Lembo said Connecticut and Connecticut businesses “are paying for the horrible and inconsistent messages we’ve sent over the past decade.” He also said the state needs to get out of crisis management mode, because “that doesn’t work.”

As part of last year’s budget Lembo was able to get lawmakers to approve a provision that would prevent spending an increase in revenues. Instead, it directs a certain portion of that increased revenue to Connecticut’s budget reserve fund so the state is prepared for future economic downturns. But the provision has an effective date of 2022, meaning the state won’t require itself to set aside the money until then. “Three-quarters of a loaf is better than none at all,” Lembo said.

There’s also the problem where certain areas of the budget — like state employee pension obligations — continue to grow and crowd out other spending. These obligations are growing by $100 million a year and will top off at $3.4 billion in 2020 if nothing is done, Lembo said. To make matters more difficult, benefit design is locked in with the labor unions until 2022. He said his plan to level the impact is currently being discussed by labor and the Malloy administration.

As far as economic development is concerned, Lembo, a member of the Bond Commission, said that between 2011 and 2015 Connecticut is spending about $400 more per capita on direct economic development activity. Massachusetts and Rhode Island are spending about 25% of that, but their gross state products are a full point ahead of Connecticut. “That’s an indicator that something’s not working,” Lembo said.

Steve Obsitnik, co-founder of Imagine Connecticut, said that while invigorating the state’s business economy is its core goal, what shouldn’t be forgotten is that a stronger business climate will also help the people who live in Connecticut. Obsitnik said: “We have to fight so when our kids are graduating from high school or college here that they aren’t exported to California or Texas for a cool job.” Also speaking at the meeting was Connecticut Business & Industry Association President Joe Brennan, who said: “If we don’t have economic growth we are all doomed. We keep fighting over shrinking dollars.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed legislation that will allow East Hampton Town to finance improvements to its airport over a longer period of time, in an attempt to help free the town from being required to accept all aircraft as a condition of receiving grant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration. State Senator Ken LaValle and State Assemblyman Fred Thiele authored the bill.

East Hampton had negotiated the release of its so-called FAA “grant assurances” as of Dec. 31, 2014, after not taking grant money from the FAA for several years, and last year drafted several airport noise restrictions after legal advice that they were now able to limit traffic to the airport as a result of the expiration of the grant assurances. But, without taking FAA money, the town must pay for all necessary improvements to keep the airport safe, including clearing trees out of flight paths and maintaining runways and taxiways and their lighting.

After a federal court sided last month with an aviation advocacy group that sued over the town’s new restrictions, East Hampton is now planning to appeal that case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals’ decision maintains that the federal Airport Noise and Control Act preempts the local laws, and that noise restrictions are allowed only if they are applied for through the procedural requirements of the federal law, and maintains that this is mandatory for any public airport regardless of whether or not it receives federal funding.

“This legislation would allow the town to bond out improvements over a longer period of time in an effort to give the town the time they need to fully plan and implement costly infrastructure work, and to ensure that the airport remains self-sustainable,” according to Mr. LaValle.

Residents of Southold and East Hampton towns aren’t the only ones that didn’t like New York State’s “I Love N.Y.” tourism signs posted last summer.  

The Federal Highway Administration is demanding that the state either take all 514 of them down — including signs on the North Fork — or make them come into compliance with federal regulations. “If it becomes clear that it is not going to happen, we will make a determination about the penalty. It could be a range of things, from withholding federal approval for projects to withholding highway funding,” said FHA spokesman Neil Gaffney. The state spent $1.775 million on the signs last summer, according to state officials. 

East End officials complained about the size of the signs last summer, specifically the sign in Orient Point near the Cross Sound Ferry. The FHA’s complaint has to do with the amount of information in the signs. “Basically, any sign on a road needs to really be directing folks along the way. Traffic, safety, that sort of thing. It’s not so much tourism related. Basically, you need signs that are simple and easy to understand within a matter of seconds” Mr. Gaffney said. 

FHA Administrator Greg Nadeau will meet with New York Department of Transportation Commissioner Matt Driscoll next month in Washington to discuss how these signs violate national standards and to come up with a plan to bring the state into compliance, Mr. Gaffney said.

Friday December 2, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers Gretchen Swanson and Mike Merli.)

In tonight’s news: Wall Street ratings agency changes outlook for Connecticut bonds citing fixed costs; Connecticut advocates call for a recovery high school pilot program; the state of New York will distribute $3.85 million for addiction recovery supports; and, panel names seven nominees for the New York Court of Appeals.

One of the Wall Street ratings agencies downgraded its outlook of Connecticut’s general obligation bonds citing fixed costs and a stubborn budget deficit. S&P Global Ratings revised its outlook of Connecticut bonds from stable to negative Wednesday, but maintained its AA- rating.

The revision, according to S&P Global Ratings credit analyst David Hitchcock, reflects “our view that projected growth in fixed costs could rise to a level we believe could comprise a substantial portion of the state budget and thereby hamper Connecticut’s budget flexibility as the state addresses large out-year budget gaps.”

Lawmakers learned last week that the state likely faces a $1.5 billion budget deficit in fiscal year 2018 and that fixed costs account for almost half of the general fund. State Comptroller Kevin Lembo certified yesterday that the state is currently on track to end the 2017 fiscal year with an $82.3 million deficit.

Proponents of funding a recovery high school in Connecticut are setting a goal of launching some sort of pilot program in time for the start of the 2017 school year. Some of those proponents got together Wednesday, and at a three-hour meeting at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford mapped out strategies to try and get state legislators on board.

The session on recovery schools, which are secondary schools designed specifically for students in recovery from substance use disorder or dependency, was one of several that have been held on the subject over the past few years.

On Wednesday, the group agreed “to prepare a document in a two week time-frame” that will be used as a “proposal for the legislature to support a bill for a recovery high school in Connecticut.” This is according to Teresa Spencer, a registered nurse who is organizing the group’s meetings.
Across the country there are 36 recovery high schools, ranging in size from 30 to 100 students. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office announced yesterday that the state of New York will distribute $3.85 million to fund supports for people battling substance use disorders and working to stay clean.

Most of the funding, around $2.85 million, will be used to continue to provide family support navigators and peer engagement specialists in each of the state’s economic development regions, including the Capital Region. Another $1 million will fund new community coalitions, intended to coordinate resources to address substance use prevention, treatment and recovery efforts, respond to community-specific concerns and increase collaboration.

The funds will be awarded through a Request for Applications process, through the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

According to Albany Times-Union, on Thursday the New York State Commission on Judicial Nomination released its list of seven nominees to fill a soon-to-be vacant seat on the Court of Appeals. Governor Andrew Cuomo will be making his seventh nomination to the seven-member high court at the end of this month, when Judge Eugene Pigott is being forced into retirement. 

The Commission on Judicial Nomination is charged with creating a list of potential nominees who, in addition to being attorneys for at least a decade, “are well qualified, by virtue of their character, temperament, professional aptitude, experience, qualifications and fitness for office, to fulfill the duties of that high office.”

This time around, the panel received 35 applications — including 12 women and nine from “diverse backgrounds.” The commission interviewed 21 candidates, including eight women and six ethnic minorities.

The Commission’s seven nominees are:
  the Esquires:  Eric O. Corngold; Caitlin J. Halligan;                                   Benjamin E. Rosenberg; Robert A. Spolzino; and Rowan D. Wilson;
   the Honorables:  Erin M. Peradotto and Judith J. Gische.

Cuomo is required to select a candidate between January 1st and 15th and the state Senate is obligated to vote on the nomination within 30 days of that selection. 

Thursday December 1, 2016  (Thanks to WPKN volunteers Liz Becker and Melinda Tuhus.)

In the news tonight: Yale’s UNITE HERE unions hold rally at New Haven City Hall; Connecticut State Comptroller Kevin Lembo Challenges Tax Deductions for Christian Organization that is Anti-Gay Rights; and. New York State to add chronic pain to list of conditions medical marijuana can treat.

Yale’s UNITE HERE unions held a town-gown “unity rally for a future for good jobs for everyone” Wednesday evening at New Haven City Hall. 
WPKN’s Melinda Tuhus reports:

[transcript unavailable]

State Comptroller Kevin Lembo, who is Connecticut’s first openly gay constitutional officer, announced that his office is investigating a Christian organization that’s against LGBTQ rights. The American Family Association of Mississippi, which the Southern Poverty Law Center described in 2011 as part of the “most important anti-gay lobby in this country,” is on an approved list of tax deductible donations for state employees.

Lembo, who serves as the administrator for the Connecticut State Employee Campaign for Charitable Giving, said all recipient organizations must submit an anti-discrimination certification each year and comply with all relevant state laws as a condition of participation in the program. In a letter to Tim Wildmon, president of AFA, Lembo wrote Wednesday that the organization certified that it’s in compliance with the state’s anti-discrimination laws, but published reports indicate its “so-called attempts to protect family values involve ‘combating the ‘homosexual agenda’ by boycotting companies that promote equal treatment, tolerance and acceptance of all families and marriages.”

A recent AFA campaign on its website asks its members to avoid shopping at Target because it allows its transgender shoppers and employees to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Lembo also pointed out the the group has denounced Zales, a nationwide jewelry chain, for “normalizing sin” by advertising wedding bands for same-sex couples. AFA acknowledged receiving the letter from Lembo. “American Family Association has received a letter from Connecticut State Comptroller Kevin Lembo,” AFA President Tim Wildmon said in a written statement Wednesday. He declined further comment.

Lembo has asked AFA to provide written documentation of its stated policy of non-discrimination and documentation affirming that the AFA is in compliance with all federal and state laws regarding equal employment opportunity and public accommodations with respect to its programs, clients, officers, employees and volunteers.

Lembo also asked that AFA provide documentation demonstrating that the AFA is engaged in the delivery of charitable and public health, welfare, environmental, conservation or service purposes. “We have a responsibility to donors to ensure that the participating organizations abide by the rules and regulations of the CSEC, particularly those that ensure inclusiveness and protection against discrimination,” Lembo said.

The Albany Times-Union reports:
New Yorkers suffering from certain chronic pain will be able to use medical marijuana to alleviate their symptoms, the state Department of Health announced on Thursday. That addition to the strict list of conditions treatable by medical marijuana products is one of the most significant strides the state has taken to expand the program to date.

It’s not yet clear exactly what kind of chronic pain will be treatable under the program’s rules. The department will develop a regulatory amendment, which will specify the chronic pain conditions that will qualify patients for the program. That amendment is to be published for public comment soon, the department said. Already on the list of 10 treatable conditions are cancer, HIV infection or AIDS and epilepsy, among others.

The addition follows a lengthy review by the department and comes as it also moves to allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to certify patients for the state-run program, which is among the nation’s most strict.