Left in the Cold — Utility Shut-Offs and State Responses

Left in the Cold — Utility Shut-Offs and State Responses

Thursday, October 9, 2008



Voter Suppression Update


Research Roundup

conference call: 2008 ballot initiatives - What Progressives are Promoting and What They're Fighting


WHAT: Call to discuss state ballot initiatives up for a vote this November. We will have speakers addressing the strategy and issues involved in the Colorado labor-business ballot confrontation, the battles over gay marriage, the implications of various tax initiatives, along with how issues like health care, clean energy, immigration and election reform are playing at the ballot box.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona House of Representatives
David Sirota, Nationally syndicated columnist and New York Times Best-Selling Author
Joel Foster, Deputy Executive Director, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center
Joel Barkin, Executive Director, Progressive States Network
Nathan Newman, Policy Director, Progressive States Network
WHEN: 2:00pm EDT, Thursday October 16, 2008
DIAL-IN: (800) 391-1709, Login Code 709424



Left in the Cold — Utility Shut-Offs and State Responses

Working families struggling to make utility payments are feeling the chill as companies shut off their gas and electricity. Shut-offs are up across dozens of states, particularly Michigan where unemployment is high, with a 22 percent increase in the number of families left without heat or electricity. The state's Heating and Warmth Fund, which helps those in need pay delinquent heating bills, has seen a record 42 percent increase in people applying for heating payment assistance.

Utility companies promised that deregulation would bring increased competition and reduced prices, but the opposite has occurred. Instead families are faced with choosing between paying for food, rent or heat. In Maryland and Illinois, as rate caps expired, states had to scramble to respond to rapidly rising consumer costs. Here are some state solutions to beat back the cold:

  • In New York alone, more than 230,000 residential customers of 10 major utilities have faced service shut-offs for nonpayment through August of this year, an increase of 17 percent. New York is spending an extra $49 million on energy efficiency programs through its Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP)
  • Connecticut’s Energy Assistance Program plans on distributing $84 million for heating fuels costs this winter to more than 90,000 households. The program provides basic assistance ranging from $650 to $925 for homeowners and renters whose heat is not included in the rent and up to $455 for tenants whose heat is included.
  • Maine intends on distributing “warm kits” that include low-flow showerheads, caulk and high-efficiency light bulbs.

States are also examining long-term measures to ensure that energy rates remain relatively stable by increasing oversight and requiring energy companies to provide "least-cost" energy portfolios of long and short term resources:

  • Maryland’s HB 1314 / SB 538 would increase oversight and ensure that electric companies satisfy reliability and electricity supply needs and provide specified customers with safe and reliable electricity supplies at affordable prices.
  • Pennsylvania HB 1201 seeks to address the rate cap expiration beforehand by requiring that utilities provide their customers with "least-cost" service rather than relying on costlier prevailing market rates.

Consumer advocate groups like ACORN, the PIRGs, and AARP have called for reforms such as independently-run energy efficiency systems, price controls on gasoline, heating oil, propane, and natural gas, banning utility shut offs and ensuring more consumer representation on boards of public power agencies. In a nation that can spend hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out Wall Street and banks, states are exploring how to keep the electricity and gas flowing to families that would otherwise be left literally in the dark.

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Mental Health Parity included in Bailout Plan; Stronger State Laws Remain in Effect

The new federal mental health parity law, passed as part of the recent $700 billion financial bailout package, is a real piece of help for families around the country. Even better, the law will not preempt stronger state parity legislation. The law will help states achieve their parity goals because it applies to self-insured health plans which are not subject to state regulation.

The federal parity law requires group and self-insured company health plans covering more than 50 employees to cover mental health and substance abuse services at levels equal to coverage for other health problems. The law applies to insurance plans covering 113 million Americans, including 82 million who are covered by self-insured company plans which are not regulated by the states. While the law does not mandate mental health coverage, to the extent a health plan includes coverage for any mental health service it must do so at levels equal to coverage for other health problems. Health plans covered by the law will no longer be able to discriminate against mental health patients by setting higher co-pays and deductibles or other strategies to limit access to care for mental health services.

Federal parity is a significant step forward for mental health advocates, who call the law "a great civil rights victory". Proponents represent both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including Texas State Representative Garnet Coleman, who championed Texas' mental health parity law and is a board member of the Progressive States Network. Mental Health America reports that an estimated 67% of adults and 80% of children do not receive mental health services when they need it. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that untreated mental illness results in a staggering economic cost of $100 billion in the US each year, not to mention the personal toll of untreated mental illness on individuals and families.

Stronger State Standards Upheld: 38 states have mental health parity legislation, although the laws and standards vary greatly. According to Mental Health America, the federal law will not impact state laws mandating parity for health plans with 50 or fewer employees. For groups larger than 50 that are covered by state parity laws, federal law will not preempt stronger state standards. For instance, some states require health plans to cover certain mental health conditions, while the federal law does not, and to cover them at levels equal to other medical conditions. The federal law simply requires parity in instances where mental health services are covered. The stronger state laws will remain in effect. There are instances, however, where the federal law may improve state standards. If a state law mandates a level of coverage that is less than other medical coverage, federal law will prevail. Additionally, the federal law includes parity for substance abuse, effectively establishing the same standard across states.

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Voter Suppression Update

A couple of weeks ago, we outlined the rash of voter suppression activities cropping up, like clockwork, around the nation. This week we cover the new suppression efforts that have come to light since.

Montana GOP Challenge of Over 6,000 Voters Withdrawn After Grassroots Backlash: In a resounding victory for Montana voters, the GOP has withdrawn challenges to thousands of voters in the most heavily Democratic areas of the state. After local progressives discovered that the challenges had been filed, they swung into action in a way seldom seen. The same day the news hit, Forward Montana organized a multiprong response that included an impromtu protest at the Missoula GOP headquarters, a coordinated media and public education campaign and a legal response. They also have begun developing a legislative response to ensure that similar voter suppression efforts are not repeated in the future.

The challenges were based on a list of address changes purchased from a private consumer information company. Like all instances where mailing lists are used to remove voters from the rolls, this list included countless voters who had either moved only within the county (these voters can change their address at the polls) or who were students or deployed military personnel who can use their home address to vote. Forward Montana put a list of the challenged voters online and it quickly became clear that the vast majority of the challenges had zero merit. Even the Republican Lt. Gov. editorialized against the challenges, highlighting the fact that one of America's most decorated living veterans with 10 medals of honor was on the challenge list.

The Democratic Party, who sued to halt the challenges, has not withdrawn its lawsuit and is also asking the judge to bar any future challenges before November.

GOP Sues to Prevent Early Voting Sites from Opening in a Heavily Democratic Indiana County: In Lake County, Indiana the Republican Party has gone to court to prevent satellite early voting in city clerks offices in the cities of Gary, Hammand, and East Chicago - all heavily low-income, minority communities that vote overwhelmingly Democratic and are central to the Obama campaigns efforts to win this reliably red state.

The County Elections Board voted to open early voting in these cities by a 3-2 party-line vote. However, the county GOP is claiming that sites can only be authorized by a unanimous vote of the board. The clerks in the cities in question planned to move ahead with early voting, but agreed to wait until a judge can rule on the GOP's request for a temporary restraining order. Three courts are now involved and conflicting rulings have been issued.

Intimidating and Misleading Flyers Distributed to Philadelphia Voters: Flyers warning that voters with outstanding driving tickets or other legal issues will be arrested by undercover officers at the polls have been distributed in Philadephia neighborhoods and universities. A classic voter suppression technique, intimidating flyers have been a tool used to thwart voting since the civil rights era and before. The content of the flyers has been vigorously contested by Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison, who said, "[t]he only thing that police officers are going to do that we'll be encouraging that day is that they'll be exercising their own individual right to vote." The case has been referred to the local prosecutor and the Department of Justice.

Ohio Early Voters in Columbus Face Intimidating Surveillance: There have been multiple complaints of individuals standing outside the Veterans Memorial early voting location in Columbus, Ohio with clip boards, recording the license plate numbers of voters who enter the parking lot. This type of surveillance is a typical voter intimidation strategy, which unfortunately is not proscribed by Ohio law.

Alabama Governor Uses Secret List to Illegally Disenfranchise Voters with Criminal Records: The Alabama Office of Court Administration (OCA) has revealed that the Governor, using his authority as a federal judge’s court-appointed overseer of Alabama’s election system, has used a secret list of 444 felonies to remove voters from the rolls. Previously only about 70 crimes were grounds for disenfranchisement. The OCA has objected to the vast expansion of the list to include such crimes as killing livestock illegally, shoplifting and disrupting a funeral.

For months the Governor denied that an expanded list was being used to disenfranchise voters, while it was being provided to local election officials as legal guidance. The governor's office finally released the new list to the Associated Press last week. The Secretary of State's Office was caught off guard by the revelation and is scrambling to determine how many people where erroneously purged from the voter rolls.

ACORN Office in Nevada is Raided by Secretary of State's Office and Attorney General: Early this week agents of the Secretary of State and Attorney General's offices raided the Las Vegas ACORN office in a search for evidence of voter registration fraud. ACORN in Las Vegas has registered 80,000 mostly low-income and minority voters in this year's voter registration drive. The organization has been actively flagging any voter registration forms that appear defective or fraudulent and cooperating with the Secretary of State since the summer. They called the raid a political "stunt."

Ohio Sec. of State Forced to Accept Absentee Ballot Applications Distributed by GOP: The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that over a million absentee ballot applications mailed by the McCain campaign should be accepted even if a check box indicating that the applicant is an eligible voter has not been checked. In a unfortunate turn from her generally pro-voter disposition, Secretary Brunner had ordered local election officials not to accept the applications if the box wasn't checked, even though the check box was not required to be on the forms in the first place.

US Social Security Administration Shutting Database for Three Days in October, Possibly Preventing Voter Registration: The Social Security Administration has released an alert announcing that it will shut down its databases from Oct. 11th to the 13th. While not what you typically think of as a voter suppression ploy, the federal Help America Vote Act's requirements make it look that way in this instance. New registrations from voters without a driver's license number are required to be verified against the social security database. During the period the database will be down, thousands of voter registration forms will be processed, yet any needing social security database verification will be put aside. Given the record number of registrations in some areas, this will cause a major disruption and will exacerbate problems getting all registrations processed in time for election day.


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Research Roundup

A sign of tough economic times is increasing worry by Americans about their ability to feed their families, as documented in a new survey by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). The survey shows overwhelming support for expanding nutrition assistance programs as part of anti-recession programs and a belief that government is not doing enough to solve hunger-related issues.

The future of progressive politics is bright, as illustrated by a new report on the economic beliefs of young people -- "the Millenials" -- which reveals that not only is the younger population more diverse and committed to economic justice, but young whites overall hold far more progressive beliefs about economic policy than their parents. The report by the Center for American Progress finds that young people overwhelmingly see labor unions as critical to protect workers, support universal health care, and increased spending on the poor.

In America's Health Starts with Healthy Children: How Do State's Compare?, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission examines children's health and how it is affected by socioeconomic factors. The chartbook provides children's health data, including infant mortality, state-by-state.

For candidates wondering what to say about the immigration issue, the American Immigration Policy Center has provided A Candidate's Guide to Immigration: Answers to the Tough Questions, which provides polling data, facts, and solid responses for candidates to use in addressing voter concerns on issues ranging from worksite enforcement to immigrants and wages to public benefits to local police enforcement of federal immigration policy.

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has released a comprehensive online searchable database of all 1,059 immigration bills introduced in 2007 and an accompanying report on highlights from the database, including findings that bills to expand immigrant rights and integrate them into our communities were actually more popular than the headline-catching punitive policies enacted in only a few states.

As states discuss economic recovery plans, a new report by the New Mexico Fiscal Policy Project reminds us that Medicaid has an integral role in boosting state economies, both in keeping the workforce healthy and, through federal matching funds, injecting additional dollars into the economy, which translates into job creation and related economic activity.

FairVote released the third in their series examining the uniformity of election administration in swing states, this time covering Colorado.

People for the American Way now has voter ID toolkits for use in public education that cover six states: California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, and Texas. These kits are a great resource for anyone involved in voter mobilization or education.

Please email us leads on good research at


The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Policy Director
Caroline Fan, Policy Specialist
Julie Schwartz, Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Policy Specialist
Kayla Southworth, Policy Associate
Austin Guest, Communications Specialist
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Coordinator

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