Thursday, April 26, 2007

How the Democratic State Budget helps New Britain.

There is a lot of talk right now about the exciting things included in the Democratic state budget proposal. I thought it might be helpful to post some information about how this budget would benefit New Britain:

Direct relief to taxpayers...
  • The governor's plan raises taxes on most people:
    • Raises middle class income taxes to 5.5%
    • Raises taxes another $500 by eliminating the Property Tax Credit
  • The Democratic budget helps, instead:
    • Cuts income taxes for 90% of people in the state
    • Doubles the Property Tax Credit - to $1000, which my very, very preliminary analysis says would bring over $8 million in relief to New Britain taxpayers
    • creates an earned income tax credit, which would make more tax relief available to thousands of New Britain families - and bring $2 million into New Britain.
Helping the city to keep taxes lower and fund local services...
  • The Democratic budget provides $1.3 more in grants to the city of New Britain than the governor's budget for mill rate relief and education funding. The Democrats' budget makes possible both a lower mill rate and better funding for education than the governor's plan.
  • On top of this funding, the Democrats' budget provides more support for priority school districts - like New Britain.
  • All together, the Democratic budget increases property tax relief funding for New Britain by millions of dollars.
  • As I said, the bill increases funding for hospitals and local agencies, like CCARC. It also replaces the $100,000 in funding for the New Britain OIC. The governor proposed cutting this from the budget completely.
  • The Democratic provides a new $100,000 appropriation for New Britain arts organizations.
More funding for health care...
  • A total of $300 million (federal reimbursement estimated at $73 million) has been added to improve the quality and accessibility of health care including;

Democrats' Budget

Governor's Budget

$121.3 million for Medicaid rate increases for hospitals and other providers


$39 million for a 3% COLA for non profit providers

$15 Million for a COLA for certain non profit providers

$34.4 million for increases to the HUSKY program for infants, children and adults


$55 million for increased services for the State General Assistance Program (SAGA)


$20 million for dental care for Children enrolled in the HUSKY program


$7.75 million for a 3% cost of living increase for the Home Care Program


And, here are the proposal for capital projects funding in New Britain in the Democratic budget plan...
  • $440,000 in 2008 for replacement of the Brooklawn Street Bridge
  • $1,000,000 in 2008 and $1,000,000 in 2009 for property acquisition, design development, and construction of a downtown redevelopment plan
  • $500,000 in 2008 for improvements to New Britain Stadium, including a new score board
  • $1,500,000 in 2008 for hospital-based emergency service facilities for the Hospital of Central Connecticut
  • $1,000,000 in 2008 for building renovations to the Rose Hill Center
  • $150,000 in 2008 to purchase a building for creation of a food pantry
  • $1,000,000 for improvements to, alterations and construction of, residential facilities at the Klingberg Family Center
  • $1,200,000 in 2008 for the Pathways-Senderos Teen Pregnancy Prevention Center to acquire a new facility
  • $557,800 in 2008 and $635,700 in 2009 for implementation of a technology plan at Charter Oak State College
  • A total of $41,780,000 over two years for Central Connecticut State University for upgrades, renovations, repairs, and construction, including $5,000,000 in 2008 for infrastructure, road, site, and utility improvements to East Campus, and $11,706,000 in 2009 for construction and development of a new classroom and office facility

The next big good-government reform: Reforming the state bonding process.

While reforming the state bonding process is a very good idea, it has received a lot of unfair treatment lately - frankly, because I think Democrats have not really done a good job explaining why it is needed. So I wanted to take a few moments write down some of the very good reasons this important part of the state budget process needs to be reformed.

State bonding is the process of the state borrowing money for construction, renovation and other capital needs for schools, state facilities, city and town governments and other organizations in communities across the state. Naturally, it is a good idea to keep state debt low but, since bonding is the way construction and other capital projects get done by our state government, access to this funding is critical in so many areas of need.

Technically, the legislature "authorizes" bonding and then the State Bond Commission approves what projects actually get done. But, except for with school construction, the decision by the governor of what projects make it onto the agenda of a State Bond Commission meeting is the real point at which the decision is made for what gets approved and what does not. So, what really happens in the state bonding process is that the power to decide is vested in just one person - the governor.

Of course, it is never a good idea for one person to have such vast, nearly unchecked power over anything. Vest hundreds of millions of dollars in funding that is critically important to everyone in the hands of just one person, and you are just asking for a corruption scandal.

And that is exactly what happened to Connecticut.

Former Gov. John Rowland used the power to grant or deny access to state bond funding as a tool to silence his critics and shore up support, especially in the legislature, for what we would later come to know were hopelessly corrupt policies. Even in parts of the Rowland corruption scandals that did not directly involve state bond funding, the power to control bonding was the hammer that he used against those who raised legitimate objections to his administration. For example, the town of Rocky Hill had sued the state over the costs to the town from the $220 million CRRA-Enron scandal, but it withdrew the lawsuit amid rumors that town officials were told that they would lose opportunities for state bonding if they did not.

The main reason offered against state bonding reform is the theory that getting the legislature involved in this part of the budget-making of the state would drive up the amount of borrowing the state does. But it is not factually true that the current system keeps state borrowing down. In fact, our state's debt has gone up greatly under the present system, and I would argue that this is specifically because it a system that is largely unaccountable to the public. Speaker of the House James Amann, in a recent Op-Ed in the Courant, had it right:
As noted in [the governor's] own testimony before the legislature's Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, Connecticut has the third highest bonded debt in the nation. HELLO - the governor, and the governor alone, has been setting the bonding agenda for years, so who do you think is responsible for getting us in this situation?
And, as much as the governor tries to frame the Democrats' reform proposals as a partisan power grab, her real concern seems to be that she would lose the ability to use her unchecked power to reward her political allies and punish her opponents. As Amann points out:
Frankly, this governor's so-called "fiscally prudent" decision-making on bonding appears to be based on the same old partisan political favors and retribution used by her predecessor. Former Gov. John G. Rowland knows what happens when too much power is in the hands of a sole authority.
There are a number of ideas for reforming the state bonding process. The two plans that came out of the legislature's Finance Committee, I think, represent two opposite approaches.

One proposal is very modest. It would require that the decisions of what projects get on the Bond Commission agenda for approval be approved by the Speaker and the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, in addition to the governor. I think that this would actually decrease the amount of state debt, since any one of three people could block something. But, I do not think this would go far enough as a reform, since we would only be expanding the number of people who make these very important decisions from one to three.

The other proposal would the take power over bond funding for community projects away from the Bond Commission, and create a new commission, under the aegis of the legislature, to control that portion of state bonding. This would take total control over some of state bonding away from the governor and transfer it to the legislature. This may be too far in the other direction, though.

What I want is more openness in the process and more accountability to the public for how decisions are made. Personally, what I would prefer would be that the final decisions on state bonded projects be a part of the state budget, like all other spending decisions. That way, the decisions would be made jointly between the governor and the legislature, so no one person would have unchecked power. With this system, the public would be able to hold all of their elected officials, the governor and legislature, alike, accountable for what gets done and what does not.

Cities, towns and other organizations would know their projects will receive funding because they appear in bonding part of the state budget. And, as opposed to the present system in which the governor may, at will, spend from vast, obscure, bonding "authorizations" that never disappear from year to year, taxpayers will get a clear and honest answer for how much is to be borrowed in the name of the state in any given year.

There is good reason for making state bonding a part of the same system of checks and balances that the rest of the state budget follows. One of the reasons John Rowland's ability to defraud the state on such a vast scale was that the legislature was not adequately doing its job of providing oversight and exercising its role in our Constitution State's constitutional system of checks and balances. Amann makes this point, too:
As a co-equal branch of government, the legislature has a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure that our bonded resources are used in the most efficient manner. As speaker of the House, I must ensure that the checks and balances spelled out in our constitution are not compromised.
I actually think Amann comes short of the significance of this point. In the Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase Roger, I asked Rogers to tell me whether the constitution provides that the power over the budget is an executive branch power or a legislative branch power. Of course, I knew the answer from high school civics, but her answer was that it is clearly a legislative branch function. This, however, is exactly the opposite of what the governor has tried to say about the state bonding part of the budget. They have repeatedly said, incorrectly, that it is an executive branch function.

Of course, the governor does participate in the budgetary process of the state, even though it is a legislative power under the Constitution. She proposes a budget at the start of the legislative session and, unless the legislature overrides her veto, her signature is needed for a budget to be approved. And, with the reform I prefer, the governor would retain this very important leadership role.

And bringing the process of checks and balances into state bonding decisions does another critically important thing - the whole process becomes public. The people of the state would be able to see what spending is being proposed, and politicians would be forced to defend it. Corruption would be made more difficult under the scrutiny of the press and the public. And the fact that the politicians would be forced to defend, year in and year our, why it is a good idea for the state to borrow the amount approved that year would ensure that public can hold their elected officials accountable if they feel that the public debt is too high.

State bonding reform is one of the huge, remaining areas of post-Rowland government reforms that have not yet been acted on. Hopefully, this is the year that it happens.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Legislation that might unintentionally outlaw blogs.

This is essentially the same thing that I wrote on the blog, 'My Left Nutmeg', in response to a very good commentary written and compiled by 'Maura' on proposed legislation concerning "social networking web sites" and the problems with it.

Here is the legislation that is in question (really just section 3 of House Bill 6981):
Sec. 3. (NEW) (Effective October 1, 2007) (a) As used in this section, "social networking web site" means an Internet web site containing profile web pages of members of the web site that include the name or nickname of such members, photographs placed on the profile web pages by such members, other personal information about such members and links to other profile web pages on social networking web sites of friends or associates of such members that can be accessed by other members or visitors to the web site. A social networking web site provides members of or visitors to such web site the ability to leave messages or comments on the profile web page that are visible to all or some visitors to the profile web page and may include a form of electronic mail for members of such web site.

(b) No owner or operator of a social networking web site shall allow a minor using a computer located in this state to create or maintain a profile web page on such web site without first obtaining the written permission of the minor's parent or guardian and without providing such parent or guardian access to such profile web page at all times.

(c) An owner or operator of a social networking web site shall adopt and implement procedures to utilize independently obtainable information to confirm the accuracy of personal identification information collected from members, parents and guardians at the time of registration on such web site.

(d) A violation of any provision of this section shall constitute an unfair trade practice under subsection (a) of section 42-110b of the general statutes. For purposes of this section, each day an owner or operator of a social networking web site fails to adopt and implement the procedures required under subsection (c) of this section shall constitute a separate and distinct violation.
It is not uncommon for legislators to vote to pass a bill through a committee with the understanding that it needs serious work before becoming law. That is what I did yesterday when I voted to pass this bill out of the Judiciary Committee. I privatively told Rep. Chris Stone, chair of the General Law Committee, which originated this bill, that I share concerns raised by Rep. Mike Lawlor, chair of the Judiciary Committee, that this legislation, as drafted, would seem to outlaw blogs - including, by the way, this one - and would tend to harm free speech in a number of important ways. I gave Rep. Stone the courtesy to allow him to try to address my concerns, but I still plan to oppose this bill in the full House of Representatives if these concerns are not addressed.

I spent some time yesterday trying to come up with a definition for "social networking web site" and other changes to whole section that would allow for the intention of the bill without impinging on free speech. And, I have to tell you, I am not sure it can be done.

The intention of this section 3 seems to boil down to protecting kids from predators on the Internet by preventing kids from creating MySpace-type accounts without their parents' permission, and to make it the websites' responsibility to enforce this.

As Maura alluded to, the problem with this is not just the question of whether kids should be allowed to create "social networking" profiles without their parents' permission. This biggest problem is that this...
No owner or operator of a social networking web site shall allow a minor using a computer located in this state to create or maintain a profile web page
...inherently requires website operators to assume that every prospective user of their site is a child unless they can document that they are not. This is one of those legislative proposals that often appear that look, at first glace, like it is targeted in the effect, but, when you think about it, you can see that it is really a rule affecting everyone, not just a certain few. And so, in reality, this provision would mean greater regulation of adult use of the Internet, as well as kids'. And that is without even getting into the free-speech rights that kids have, too.

After thinking about it a bit, I started to focus my attempt to create a definition on one that would narrow the meaning of "social networking web site" to ones that are intended to be exclusively about social companionship, while explicitly excluding sites that deal with commentary, news, arts, politics, etc. That would seem to exempt blogs and CT News Junkie. But there would still be much use of the internet that would unintentionally fall within the definition, so I started to add more and more exceptions to the definition. In the end, there had to be so many exceptions built into the legislation that it would probably have next to none of its intended effect.

I still have an open mind, but I tend to agree with Mike Lawlor that, a least right now, it seems unlikely that a workable definition can be drafted. If that is the case, the best thing that can be done would be simply remove section 3 from this bill, altogether.

Of course, the state does have a role in protecting children against predators on the Internet - arresting and prosecuting the predators - but that is a different subject.

As I alluded to when I spoke with Christine Stuart of CT News Junkie, the best thing parents can do to protect their kids is to do what I did. I recently helped my stepson to set up a blog for himself on Blogger - which hosts this blog. I did this because I want to encourage him to be creative. But, in so doing, I very clearly told him to never, never post his actual name, his phone number, address, e-mail address, photos of himself or anything else that could be used to identify who he is. And I told him not to allow his friends to do this on his blog, either. (And this reminds me that I should check it today to see that he is following these rules.) I also thought that, if I gave him a place on the Internet that I know about and can monitor, that this might discourage him from using MySpace - which, in any case, he thinks is an uncool website.

Anyway, this legislation may be an example of an idea with the best of intentions that just cannot work.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A fairer state budget.

The legislature's two budget committees - Appropriations and Finance - have just recently approved a legislative plan for the state budget. This budget plan would be significantly fairer in most ways than the one proposed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell earlier in the legislative session.

If the practice of the past few years is followed this year, the budget approved by the full legislature will be the budget agreed to, after negotiations, by the governor and legislature. So, the plan approved by the Appropriations and Finance committees is likely, for all intents and purposes, the Democratic alternative to Gov. Rell's proposed budget.

The legislature's fairer revenue plan.

The proposed budget would lower income taxes for more than 90% of the people in Connecticut. It would lower income tax rates for married couples with incomes between $44,000 and and $124,000. And, even more importantly, it would increase the Property Tax Credit from $500 to $1000. This would mean large property tax relief by letting people take up to $1000 off their income taxes to cover the property taxes they pay.

Meanwhile, the legislature's plan completely tosses out the governor's plan to increase income taxes on most people. Instead, it lowers taxes for most people, while asking the wealthiest people in the state to contribute a modest amount more.

Here are some of the details of the tax fairness plan:
*Income tax cut for Joint Filers up to $190,000

*A more progressive income tax:

For Tax Year 2007 – Joint Filers
0-$20,000 - 3%
$20,001 - $100,000 – 4.875%
$100,001-150,000 – 5%
$150,001 - $200,000 – 5.25%
$200,001 - $250,000 – 5.8%
Over $250,000 – 6.15%

For Tax 2008 and after - Joint Filers
0-$20,000 - 3%
$20,001 - $100,000 – 4.75%
$100,001-150,000 – 5%
$150,001 - $200,000 – 5.5%
$200,001 - $250,000 – 6.25%
Over $250,000 – 6.95%
The plan also would create a state Earned Income Tax Credit set to 20% of Connecticut taxpayers' federal Earned Income Tax Credit. This is important to refund poorer taxpayers for the money that they pay in sales and excise taxes. It puts millions of dollars into our state's economy, especially in cities like New Britain, and helps working families to make ends meet.

Of course, there are some aspects of the plan that I do not like. One thing I do not like the fact that the plan would eliminate the exemption for clothing under $50. Eliminating dollar-based exemptions like this is a part of complying with the standards that will be expected for the state to participate in a multi-state compact to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax revenue lost when sales are made online instead of in local stores. Even though people who buy things online are supposed to pay the 6% state "use tax", most do not, putting local retailers - and local jobs - at an unfair disadvantage. But I am deeply uncomfortable with taxing basic necessities like lower-priced clothing. That is why the new state Earned Income Tax Credit is so important. It is designed to make up for the increased sales taxes.

But, overall, the plan is very good, delivering income tax cuts and property tax relief to most of the people in the state and making the state's tax system fairer.

The legislature's fairer appropriations plan.

In addition to the direct property tax relief that the legislature's budget plan would provide, it also increases state education and property tax relief grants to cities and towns by $30.9 million over the governor's proposal. For New Britain, for example, this will mean at $1.2 more than the governor proposed for funding needed to hold the mill rate down and support our local schools. And this is not even taking account of increases in special education and priority school district funding also included in the legislative budget plan. Here is a summary of much of the increases, statewide:
Total town aid is $2.286 billion, which is $235.876 million over FY 07
Total amount over the governor - $30.9 million
Amount over the governor for each grant
Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILOT) State Owned - $15.3 million
PILOT Colleges & Hospitals - $15.2 million
Pequot/Mohegan Fund - $14.8 million
Town Air Road - $ 8 million
Adult Education - $1.6 million
In addition, while the governor's budget would provide no cost-of-living increases for non-profit agencies, like CCARC on Slater Road in New Britain, the legislature's budget provides increases for these important services. It also increases funding for hospitals. While the governor recommended complete elimination of the important state funding for the Opportunities Industrialization Center in New Britain, the legislature's budget restores funding for this program.

Also, while I am advocating for approval of a real and comprehensive universal health care plan, it is important to note the increased health care funding included in the legislative budget proposal is very extensive. One important aspect of this proposal is that provider rates would increased significantly, helping those who work to help people to be healthy to cover more of their costs in doing their important work.

There is a lot more work to do before the final approval of the state budget, but this plan would be a significant improvement from the past, and much fairer than the proposal submitted by the governor.

April 3rd video update.

Things have been very busy at the Capitol, so I have not had the chance to write any updates here recently. I will write a few notes, when I have the chance, on the budget approved by the legislature's Appropriations and Finance committees.

In the meantime, I wanted to post the most recent New Britain Legislative Update.

Online Videos by

This update was recorded on April 3, 2007, which was before the legislative budget plan was completed. So the discussion in this recording is a little behind where things stand now.

Anyway, I hope you find this update to be interesting.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Press conference tomorrow on legislation to address rising electric rates.

Phil Sherwood, a New Britain resident and an advocate with the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, sent out this media advisory today.
The Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG) and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal Discuss Campaign to Provide Rate Relief to CT's Electric Consumers

States oldest and largest public interest group and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal will hold a press conference to discuss legislation aimed at lowering electric rates including a 'call to action'
for the public to send copies of their electric bills to state legislators.

Hartford, CT. – As CT's failed energy policies continue to shower the electric generation companies and commodity traders on wall street with unprecedented profits while forcing consumers to pay record high electric rates, the 2007 legislative session is coming to a close in less than 60 days. Members of the legislature are now considering a bill, HB7098, that aims to lower costs for everyone.

The CCAG and AG Blumenthal will call for the legislature to not only enact long term solutions to the broken electric market but to also provide immediate relief by refunding hundreds of millions of dollars to ratepayers through a refund and to support concepts that allow the state to regain control over electric power generation. They will host a press conference on Monday, April 9, 2007 at 11:00 AM, in room 1B at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

WHO: The CT Citizen Action Group and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.WHAT: Press conference with Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and the CT Citizen Action Group to discuss actions the state can take to solve the problem of high electric rates.
WHEN-WHERE: Monday, April 9, 2007 at 11:00 AM, Room 1B of the Legislative Office Building (LOB).
I plan to participate in this press conference.

I have been pressing for years for legislation to roll back Connecticut's failed electric deregulation system and restore a more reasonable system, like we used to have. If action is not taken soon on this legislation, things could get even worse then they already are. On the other hand, if the legislature approves the idea of a refund to consumers, rates could go down immediately.

I think that it is important that we get this done and done now.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Health Care forum at CCSU tomorrow.

The Connecticut chapter of the National Association of Social Workers will be hosting a forum on universal health care tomorrow at CCSU. Here is the press advisory from Sen. DeFronzo's office on this event.

Who: National Association of Social Workers - Connecticut
Senator Donald J. DeFronzo (D-New Britain)
Representative John Geragosian (D-New Britain)
Representative Tim O’Brien (D-New Britain)
Representative Peter Tercyak (D-New Britain)
Representative Betty Boukus (D-New Britain)

What: Will participate in a forum on universal health care

Where: Central Connecticut State University
Alumni Hall, 1615 Stanley Street, New Britain

When: TOMORROW, April 5, 2007, beginning at 4:00 p.m.

All members of the media and the public are invited to attend.
There are some great opportunities this year to win legislation to ensure that everyone is able to have affordable health care coverage. Good universal health legislation would lower health insurance costs for most people and businesses and extend good health care coverage to the 400,000 people in Connecticut who lack health care coverage and the thousands more who have costly and inadequate coverage.

I want to be there and hope that I am. If might not be in attendance, though, because of the hearing on the Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Chase Rogers to be the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court. This is a very important hearing, especially given the problem exposed regarding the nomination of Peter Zarella as Chief Justice and the apparent effort to rush his nomination through the legislature without proper scrutiny by the public and the legislature.

But I encourage everyone to attend the forum at CCSU tomorrow.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A bill to make information from "black box" recorders in cars more private.

Most people know about the "black boxes" that are installed on airplanes. They are designed to provide key information to safety investigators of what was happening on an airplane leading up to an accident. (They are called "black boxes", because of their color after they have survived a fire.)

What many people do not know is that many newer cars have something similar installed. There is nothing like the "cockpit voice recorder" that records what pilots are saying. Airplanes actually have two "black boxes" - a voice recorder and an instrumentation data recorder. It is the second one that is similar to the new devices in many cars.

These devices are defined, in legislation approved in the Judiciary Committee today as...
"Event data recorder" means a device installed in a passenger motor vehicle, as defined in section 14-1 of the general statutes, that (A) records (i) the speed at which the motor vehicle is traveling, (ii) the direction in which the motor vehicle is traveling, (iii) steering performance data, (iv) brake performance data, including, but not limited to, whether the brakes were applied before an accident, (v) the usage of the operator's seat belt, (vi) engine speed, or (vii) throttle position, or (B) is capable of transmitting data concerning an accident in which the motor vehicle is involved to a central communications system; and (2) "lessee" means an individual who leases a passenger motor vehicle pursuant to a written lease for such individual's personal use for a period greater than three months.
This legislation, Senate Bill 974, (click here for the text of the bill) is designed to address a concern many people have had that the information recorded by these devices might be retrieved by someone might access this data - like an insurance company after an accident - and that this would violate the privacy of the car owner.

The legislation specifically allows law enforcement to have access to this information through the usually warrant process. The legislation does not prevent that. What it does do is to make it clear that the car owner owns the information in these data recorders, and other private individuals and companies have to ask permission to use it.

Given this, it made sense to me that I should vote in support of it in the Judiciary Committee today.