Public Policy Perspectives
As CFILC's Public Policy Director, Henry J. Contreras is an attorney licensed to practice in the State of California. He possesses over 28 years of legal, legislative, public policy, and consulting experience while working in the California State Legislature and the United States House of Representatives. Read Henry's bio to learn more about him.
Is the Underfunding of the SSI/SSP Program a Major Cause of Growing Hunger and Homelessness in California? March 8th, 2018 • Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
News stories published throughout the state have exposed the tragic growth of hunger and homelessness in California. It impacts urban, rural, and suburban communities alike and, for the most part, nearly all of proposed public and private sector solutions have failed miserably.
A recent series of Los Angeles Times editorials argued that a vital part of any real solutions requires that the public change their perceptions about the causes and demographic profile of those living with hunger and homelessness. They wrote that common stereotypes about how people fall into extreme poverty fail to acknowledge that the core causes encompass much more than mental illness or substance abuse.
For example, it ignores the less visible, but more numerous, population of low-income and poor who are at-risk of being pushed into even deeper poverty due to economic circumstances. More and more people have been impacted by hard times, bad luck, or safety net program cutbacks that have widened the economic divide due to poor public policy decisions at all levels of government.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Supplemental Security Income/State Supplementary Payment (SSI/SSP) Program. These grants are a critical source of basic income for over 1.2 million low-income people with disabilities and seniors aged 65 and older.
Since 2009, monthly grant cuts and the repeal of automatic statutory Cost-of-Living Adjustments (COLA) as part of the state share of the program have forced hardships and poverty for SSI/SSP recipients. Beginning in that year, the state-funded share of the monthly grants was reduced to the allowable Federal minimum of $233 to $156 for individuals and from $568 to $396 for couples.
In reality, rising costs of food and housing have substantially reduced the purchasing power of the grants. The only adjustment since 2009 was a one-time COLA in 2016-2017.
The then-existing $907 monthly grant in 2009 for individuals was worth 100.5 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). Today, the current $910.72 monthly grant is worth just 90 percent of the FPL which is set at $1,011.67 per month.
Accelerating the dive into deeper and deeper poverty for many recipients is the policy known as the "SSI Cash-Out." In exchange for a $10 monthly grant increase. SSI/SSP recipients were made ineligible for Food Stamps. California is the only state where recipients cannot receive this important food assistance.
Recipients also have less available income to keep pace with rising costs for housing. In fact, in every county the "Fair Market Rent" for a studio apartment exceeds 50 percent of the maximum SSI/SSP grant for an individual. Quite simply, recipients are at greater risk of homelessness whenever housing accounts for more than half of their household income.
The cumulative effect of the grant cuts, the SSI Cash-Out, and the statutory COLA repeal are substantially increasing hunger and homelessness. It is estimated that the cuts have pushed 1 million people into poverty and it is a major reason why California has the highest Supplemental Poverty Measure of any state.
Advocates are calling upon the Legislature to support state budget initiatives and legislation to raise the SSP grants by $100 per month and to restore the automatic COLA. However, while the Governor's Budget passes through the Federal SSI COLA to increase the maximum monthly grants by $20 for individuals and $30 for couples, there is no proposed increase in the state share.
Taking into account rising costs of living, this means that California is providing about $1.6 billion (about 40 percent) less for grants than it spent on the eve of the Great Recession in 2007-2008. This does not account for the 2 percent growth in enrollments since then.
The Governor's Budget characterizes this reduced spending as projected "savings." The challenge moving forward is that advocates and some legislators view this as making the recession-era grant cuts permanent. They vow to use part of his projected $7.5 billion budget surplus to increase the SSP share.
Thus, the public and the Legislature must decide whether "fiscal prudence" should override the need to assist SSI/SSP recipients avoid hunger and homelessness.
Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
Facing Federal Government and Economic Uncertainties Governor Brown Releases His Proposed 2018-19 State Budget to Prioritize Added Funding For The State "Rainy Day Fund" And Limited Program Spending Increases January 17th, 2018 • Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
Historically, the Governor's Budget released by past Democratic and Republican Administrations alike, reflects the "values" and political and economic priorities of their political party. They are, however, merely the opening act to further action by the Legislature as it moves through the state budget process. The Assembly and Senate Budget Committees will hold hearings for their budget bills to prepare for budget negotiations in June.
With respect to those values and priorities, when Governor Brown released the first budget of his third term as Governor in 2011, the state and the nation were still crippled by a lingering economic recession. California faced a $27 billion state budget deficit, so his message emphasized belt tightening and program spending cuts.
While Health and Human Services advocates were frustrated by his emphasis on debt retirement and opposition to prior spending cut restorations, it proved to be the correct approach. Thanks to one of the longest economic expansions in modern history and voter approval of an initiative to extend temporary tax hikes in 2012, this year's budget projects a $7.5 billion surplus---based upon $4.2 billion in additional revenue.
Although legislative leaders have already announced that they support an increase in program spending and investments, the Governor is once again taking a very cautious approach. During his press conference, he cited several possible negative fiscal outcomes from Congress' tax reforms that won't be known until mid-year; continued federal healthcare funding shifts to states; and the state fiscal obligations if CHIP isn't reauthorized and funded by March.
The $190.3 billion budget proposal includes: funding to fully fund a local control funding formula in K-12 education; modest increases in public higher education; a federally funded SSI/SSP grant increase, but no increase in the state share; implementation of the 2017 housing bills; creating a new online community college curriculum with training for people already in the workforce; full funding for the 2017 bill that waives all fees for first time community college students; and $4.6 billion in new transportation infrastructure funding from the voter-approved increased gas taxes.
The budget also includes $1.6 billion for the state share of "optional" Medi-Cal expansion; $1.3 billion in tobacco tax revenues for Medi-Cal supplemental payments, rate increases for providers, and new growth; and $150 million for the 32,000 pregnant women and children at-risk of losing health coverage if CHIP is not reauthorized beyond March 2018.
One contentious item is his proposal to stash away another $5 billion into the state's "rainy day fund". Although the voter's initiative that supplemented the size of the fund only requires a deposit of $1.5 billion, the governor proposes a $3.5 billion augmentation as a safeguard against unknown cutbacks from Congress and a recession he views as inevitable.
The lines to be drawn by the Legislature will challenge his priorities on the "rainy day fund" increase. Senate Budget Chair Holly Mitchell has announced:
"This is just the beginning of the dance. We will now begin... analyzing the impacts to existing programs, government operations, and services... [T]he governor stated that unlike other states, California has a good system of support, but it is modest. Here, modesty is not enough. I would like to see more increases in SSI COLAs and investments in Human Services. In addition, no efforts were made to advance Health4All by covering adults who would be eligible for full-scope Medi-Cal but for their immigration status."
It seems as though 2018 will be an interesting year on both the East and West Coasts. Stay tuned for more updates on the state budget process.
Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
CFILC Opposes the Charter Communications Merger February 25th, 2016 • Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
Dear Chairman Wheeler, Commissioner Clyburn, Commissioner Pai, Commissioner Rosenworcel, and Commissioner O'Rielly:
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set forth a bold vision to empower all Americans with high-speed Internet access in the National Broadband Plan. Yet, six years later, too many people with disabilities in California and across the nation still live without high-speed Internet access at home. The California Foundation for Independent Living Centers (CFILC) OPPOSES the Charter Communications merger.
Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Advance/Newhouse Partnership, the parent of Bright House Networks, have filed applications seeking Commission approval for their merger. The proposed transaction would bring together the fourth (Time Warner Cable), seventh (Charter), and tenth (Bright House Networks) largest multichannel video programming distributors in the country to create the third largest provider in the country, serving roughly 17.3 million customers. Additionally, the new company would bring together 19.4 million broadband subscribers, creating the second largest broadband internet provider in the country and would provide services to customers across portions of nearly 40 states.
CFILC opposes this merger because it would limit consumer choice, two-thirds of households in the merged company’s footprint would have no other choice for broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps or greater. In Los Angeles County, the merged company would reach 98% of County residents and 70% of those residents would have no alternative for high-speed broadband.
According to the 2015 Annual California Statewide Survey conducted by the Field Research Corporation, fully one-fifth of California households do not have high-speed Internet at home, over 40% of households of adults with disabilities do not have access to internet at home.
Federal law requires a finding of public benefit to approve the proposed Charter Communications acquisition of Time Warner Cable, Inc. This review process provides an opportunity for the FCC and California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to hold Charter accountable to achieve an acceptable performance.
For people with disabilities the Internet truly opens windows on the world and levels the playing field since those you are communicating may never know you have disability. Yet Charter does not have relationships with the disability community in California and really no experience in promoting broadband adoption to low-income households.
If the Charter merger is approved, CFILC supports the ‘Internet for All Now’ campaign that requires Charter to reach a 45% goal for broadband adoption of low-income households, that would equal 1,036,104 households, in its service area at $275 per adoption totally a $285 million investment. CFILC opposes the merger however, if the FCC chooses to approve the merger we recommend the following:
1. Require New Charter to Offer a Stand-Alone Affordable Broadband Offer for All Low-Income Households. This would require New Charter to offer for at least three years or until 80% of the eligible persons in the targeted underserved communities are connected (with no demographic group less than 70%), a stand-alone wireline broadband offer at $10 per month. The discounted affordable broadband offer by New Charter should be for all low-income households, seniors (people over 65 years of age), people with disabilities, and returning veterans.
2. Set a Performance Goal of 45% of the Eligible Low-Income Population. Set a 45% national goal for New Charter to reach the eligible persons in the targeted underserved communities within three years in its service areas, and to continue the offer until 80% of the target low-income population is achieved in its service areas.
3. Direct Collaboration with States to Develop a Strategic Plan. In states where it has service areas, the FCC should require New Charter to collaborate with states agencies with jurisdiction over telecommunications and broadband and to prepare a written strategic plan to address broadband adoption in each state.
4. Require Capitalization of an Independent Fund for Adoption. The FCC should require New Charter to capitalize an independent fund in an amount equal to 45% of the eligible low-income households in the service areas at $275 per household to increase broadband adoption through performance-based grants to experienced community-based organizations (CBOs), schools and libraries as “trusted messengers” to effectively reach the target populations (outreach in-language and culture, digital literacy training, and assistance with actual sign-ups). CETF has prepared a summary of service area population base data for broadband providers in California to determine appropriate, fair and comparable public benefit contributions by companies with pending applications before the California Public Utilities Commission and the FCC. For this transaction, $285 million is the requested public benefit to reach 45% of eligible low-income households at $275 per household, while $133 million is a subset of the $285 million representing the public benefit amount to reach 45% of Free-or-Reduced Lunch Program (FRLP) households at $275 per household.
5. Establish a National Advisory Oversight Committee: An independent national advisory committee overseeing this broadband program would provide feedback and input to the FCC in monitoring actual performance each year, establishing annual milestones, and progress to reach the goals.
CFILC OPPOSES the merger, however, if the FCC approves the merger we expect the FCC to hold Charter Communications accountable for delivering a real, measurable public benefit.
Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is Determining the Fate of Self-Driving Vehicles January 27th, 2016 • Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
The disability community is mobilizing to voice our opposition to the DMV’s proposed regulations on self-driving vehicles. The regulatory review process to finalize the rules is still underway and we are urging the DMV to revise their proposal to support the continued safe development of the technology for safe, reliable, and fully autonomous self-driving vehicles.
People with disabilities, seniors, and others who cannot, or choose not, to be a licensed driver or own a car need to know that DMV is erecting permanent barriers to continued testing of this revolutionary technology. High tech firms have already developed self-driving vehicles with advanced computer systems that safely operate a vehicle without a driver being in control.
In fact, the technology is improving every day. Test models have driven over 1.2 million miles with only a tiny fraction of collisions. The computer operating systems are so effective that human error by drivers in other vehicles has been the overwhelming cause of any accidents.
Self-driving vehicles can change the face of public and private transportation. The computers have built-in panoramic sensing capabilities. They are safer because they monitor and detect potential hazards and the exact location of all surrounding vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists and take action to avoid accidents.
Unfortunately, the proposed regulations would inhibit, rather than encourage, continued development of these vehicles. Rather than incentivizing research and development, they defeat the very purpose of self-driven vehicles by requiring the presence of a licensed driver at all times.
On the other hand, just imagine if fleets of publicly and privately-operated vehicles were available to the public. They would enable anyone to arrange for door-to-door transportation using the Uber or Lyft “on-call” transit models.
However, DMV is ignoring the ways in which self-driving vehicles can give people better transportation options and the ability to live more independently. Instead, by only allowing for the development of semi-autonomous vehicles, the regulations discriminate against and exclude the very communities that would benefit the most.
This de facto prohibition against research and development of fully autonomous self-driving vehicles is contrary to the express legislative intent stated in SB 1298 of 2012. The bill encouraged California high tech firms to advance their efforts to refine the technology and required DMV to adopt regulations for the testing and safe operation of self-driving vehicles.
The prohibition against operating these vehicles unless a licensed driver is always present preserves the status quo. Continued, forced reliance upon the scheduling and availability of friends, family members, or personal assistants for travel works against the needs and interests of millions of Californians.
It is beyond question that reliable means of transportation are keys to independent living. Existing public transit and Para-Transit systems more often than not are incompatible with the transportation and scheduling needs of our community.
Self-driving vehicles could help resolve these problems. There are other affiliated benefits. For example, publicly and privately owned fleets could help relieve the need to create and maintain parking spaces because these could be programmed to operate continuously, stopping only for fuel/charging and maintenance. Fewer parking spaces would enable land to be used for more housing, recreation, and other land needs.
Accordingly, we are poised at a critical crossroads today that could provide transportation relief and an improved quality of life for people with disabilities, seniors, and others. The DMV regulations are shortsighted because they fail to take into account the reasons why limiting continued research and development exclusively to semi-autonomous vehicles is unacceptable public policy.
Please join us in mobilizing opposition to the DMV regulations. Self-driving cars have the potential to offer us the freedom to live, learn, work, and play.
Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
The ADA’s Physical Accessibility Standards Are Under Attack... Again... and This Time the Disability Community Could End Up Losing July 2nd, 2015 • Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
Gaining equal physical access to privately owned places of public accommodations, such as hotels, restaurants, and places of business was a central goal of the American with Disability Act. Yet, 25 years later, as the disability community celebrates this landmark anniversary, our civil rights to equal accessibility are under attack. And this time, those who have opposed the ADA standards may win after chipping away at it bit by bit.
Even though ADA opponents concede that 95 percent of these public buildings remain inaccessible, business and restaurant associations, “anti-lawsuit abuse” coalitions, and small business owners have introduced bills in the Legislature every year to emasculate state ADA accessibility standards. Utilizing well-funded media campaigns, they claim that people with disabilities and plaintiff attorneys engage in filing ADA “rampant, frivolous” lawsuits only involving minor and technical” violations.
Legislators and the general public are sympathetic. They believe that these lawsuits extort vulnerable “Mom and Pop” small business owners who’re unaware that they are violating the ADA. It’s claimed that after being served with a complaint, they are fearful and pay monetary damage settlements or close their doors, thereby increasing unemployment.
These attacks have never slowed, even after the Legislature passed two major reform bills designed to end alleged ADA lawsuit abuse. Supporters of those reform bills continually break promises to give the reforms adequate time to be implemented and evaluated before introducing new ones.
Unfortunately, these reforms don’t go after the real “bad actors.” They don’t professionally discipline the plaintiff and defense attorneys abusing the ADA, property owners who knowingly rent or lease inaccessible properties, or mandate local building code inspection and enforcement. This leaves leaves private lawsuits as the only remedy to enforce the ADA.
Instead, the reform bills have made it increasingly difficult for every aggrieved disabled person to file suit or recover damages. It includes those with valid claims and those not represented by attorneys accused of abusing the system.
In the past, the disability community has been able to defeat most of the more offensive bills with the support of Democratic lawmakers. However, this year the ADA opposition convinced a “Moderate” Democrat, Senator Richard Roth, to author SB 251, which represents constitutes the greatest threat to the ADA. This bill that further infringes upon our civil rights is gaining momentum in the Legislature.
SB 251 passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support. It is now in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, where it is scheduled for a July 7th hearing. Unfortunately, strong opposition from the disability community organization is lacking. Although advocates are negotiating compromise amendments to make a horrible bill better, there are no guarantees they will be accepted. Our rights may be in mortal danger.
There isn’t much time to mobilize before the hearing, but here is a link to some key Talking Points about SB 251: http://www.disabilityrightsca.org/Events/Documents/DisabilityAccessTalkingPoints.pdf
Please, contact your Assembly Members and Senators and urge them to oppose SB 251. Tell your friends and colleagues, use social media, and join us in the fight against this dangerous bill.
Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
Battle to Preserve Net Neutrality and an Open Internet for People with Disabilities December 31st, 2014 • Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
Most decisions impacting the lives of people with disabilities are made by Congress and the California Legislature with open public scrutiny. In contrast, many equally important regulatory agency decisions are occur in relatively closed proceedings since attending public hearings is often inconvenient and media coverage is sporadic. So, watching videos of hearings, reading website posted information, and submitting public comments is the only means for public participation.
A proposed rule before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an example of rulemaking that's receiving scant attention, even though it could raise Internet service charges. It would allows Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon to charge web companies such as Google and Netflix extra fees to deliver high-speed online videos and content. Customers would then pay higher fees for content that's currently free with our Open Internet.
However, opposition is mounting because the rule discriminates against smaller web companies that cannot afford those additional charges. There is a battle to preserve "Net Neutrality" so that all online content remains free from surcharges or content blocking by the owners of owning these information pipelines.
CFILC has joined disability rights advocates in forcefully expressing concerns that low-income disabled individuals would be particularly hard-hit by the rule. Our Public Comments argue that our low-income consumers need affordable, accessible Internet services.
The comments urged the FCC to preserve Net Neutrality and an Open Internet. They also recommended that that the Comcast Corporation be required, as a condition for approving its merger with Time-Warner Cable, to improve its Comcast Internet Essentials program enrollments by expanding eligibility to all low-income households. The discounted service program currently excludes most seniors and people with disabilities.
CFILC also wrote that the rule could widen the Digital Divide for people with disabilities as an underserved population group. Like most Americans, our consumers are increasingly dependent upon Internet and high speed broadband services. Yet, only 54% of disabled adults have home Internet service, compared to 81% of the non-disabled and only 41% have high-speed broadband services, in contrast to 69% of the non-disabled.
Preserving affordable, accessible Internet services is a critically important issue for the disability community. Without home Internet service, consumers cannot follow important news and information. It also diminishes their ability to seek educational, employment, and job training opportunities.
For example, many employers have replaced traditional classified ads with online job announcements and require applicants to file online applications. Government agencies are also using their websites to post information and submit applications for public benefit programs and services.
Unfortunately, public-access computers are not a viable alternative due to their limited availability and restricted usage hours. Moreover, it often requires travel to distant or inaccessible locations, especially in rural areas and cities or counties with large boundaries.
We know that today home Internet services are no longer a luxury, but a necessity and a vital tool for independent living. Among other things, consumers can remotely access education and training classes and interact with their medical providers with traveling to medical offices. The operation of Assistive Technology devices and applications also requires high speed Internet service and adequate broadband capacity.
This explains why CFILC is closely monitoring the rule that could be finalized in early spring. We will keep you informed about these developments.
Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
California Public Utilities Commission Postpones Final Rulemaking to Further Evaluate Recommendations Restricting CBO Eligibility for Utility Discounts Under the California Teleconnect Fund August 6th, 2014 • Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
Update on Prior CFILC Report: Last month we advised CFILC Board of Directors that California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) had initiated a 2014 rulemaking process that could make major revisions in the eligibility criteria for Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) participating in the California Teleconnect Fund (CTF). This fund subsidizes a program giving eligible CBOs a 50 percent discount on certain communications services.
The CPUC assigned one of its Commissioners and an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to review and convene public hearings about a CPUC staff report that examined whether the CTF needs to be revised. Among other things, the report recommended narrowing the eligibility criteria for CBOs.
An informal CFILC poll revealed that CFILC and our ILCs participate in the CTF discount program. They average $500-$600 in monthly savings.
The CTF was established by the Legislature in 1999 to help schools, libraries, CBOs, and other entities close the Digital Divide for low-income and underserved communities. For many of these individuals and families, the costs of acquiring and utilizing computers, advanced communication systems, and the Internet creates inequalities in making technology inaccessible and unaffordable. Statistically, low-income people with disabilities are among the most underserved communities.
Over the past several months, the CFILC public policy unit has been collaborating with utility consumer advocacy groups to monitor some CPUC proceedings. The Center for Accessible Technology (CFAT) and The Utility Reform Network (TURN) reached out to CFILC in these rulemaking proceedings to give a disability community perspective on rate increases.
Funding “Direct” Versus “indirect” Services: One of the staff recommendations of greatest concern to the CBOs and utility consumer advocates is a proposal to restrict CFT eligibility exclusively for CBO direct services activities. Due to concerns about the large number of CBOs participating in the CTF (over 9.000), CPUC staff recommended defining direct services as only including activities such as computer training classes, giving consumers access to the CBO’s office computers, or activities directly linking consumers to acquiring these technologies.
The utility consumer advocats opposed that narrow definition because many current CBOs become ineligible. Instead, they argue that the CTF should include providing direct and indirect services. It would be broadly defined to include any activities helping underserved populations acquire these technologies would qualify. For example, if a CBO used advanced computers and broadband services to search for benefits, information, or referrals on behalf of consumers, they would be eligible for the discount.
We believe that CFILC and our member ILCs would remain eligible for the CFT as direct service providers. The reason is that currently deliver services of the nature identified by CPUC staff. Our activities in delivering AT as a mandatory core service under Federal and state law, as well as assisting consumers with the Digital Access Project qualifies as direct service delivery.
However, the utility consumer advocates advised us that CPUC staff had floated other eligibility restriction concepts that could have other negative impacts on CTF eligibility. For example, CPUC favor allowing matching dollar-for-dollar discounts to direct service activities. Needless to say, keeping track of which activities would or would not qualify for the discount would be a logistic nightmare. Accordingly, we were advised that CFILC testimony expressing support for the broader definition of indirect services could be very helpful.
Discussions in the Rulemaking Workshops Develop Consensus Recommendations for Continued Negotiations on CBO Eligibility: As would be expected, the CPUC staff report raised significant concerns among CBOs. These concerns were discussed in detail by advocates and utilities during recent CPUC rulemaking workshops.
Fortunately, the participating utility companies and the utility consumer advocates discussed these issues without CPUC staff participation. They eventually reached an agreement that moves away from the staff recommendations. They also more clearly define and narrow the scope of the rulemaking negotiations. The agreement was formalized in writing as a set of Consensus Recommendations that were subsequently approved by the assigned CPUC Commissioner and ALJ. The agreement was finalized shortly before a July 29th CPUC Public Participation Hearing in the Sacramento Region and another July 31st Southern California hearing.
Of course, much work remains in finalizing the recommendations for revising the CTF. Nevertheless, the parties agreed that organizations that CBOs currently offering certain indirect services should remain eligible. There may be some eligibility decisions that require a case-by-case analysis and judgment call. However, the participants agreed that the default determination should remain in support of inclusivity in the CTF.
The advocates expressed cautious optimism that the final outcome would be fair and reasonable. Nevertheless, they recommended that if could be very helpful if CFILC agreed to testify in support of the Consensus Recommendations at the two Public Participation Hearings.
We agreed to testify in support of the Consensus Recommendations and in favor of broadly defined indirect services because there is still is substantial wiggle room for the final recommended rule for consideration by the CPUC to exceed the terms of the Consensus Recommendations. Our public support is also important because it is an important variable for consideration during the CPUC rulemaking process, especially with respect to revising an existing program like the CTF.
CFILC Testifies at the Public Participation Hearings: In view of these considerations, CFILC Public Policy Director, Henry Contreras, testified at the July 29th Northern California Public Participation Hearing. He also helped coordinate the testimony delivered by Mario Janesin, Systems Change Advocate/Community Organizer for the Community Access Center in Riverside, at the July 31st Southern California Public Participation Hearing. We sent the same basic message at both hearings.
The testimony emphasized that the accessibility and affordability of advanced computer and communications technology is critically important for people with disabilities. It not only helps close the Digital Divide and also enables CFILC and our member ILCs to assist people with disabilities in living independent and productive lives.
It was noted that Assistive Technology is advancing in new directions and with important applications for daily living that were never envisions a mere decade ago. More importantly, these technologies increasingly rely upon the availability of high-speed and broadband connections.
The testimony also supported the delivery of direct and broadly defined indirect services, so long as there is a nexus to help our consumers in accessing advance technology. We told the panelists a broad definition of indirect services was warranted because people with disabilities utilize a network of CBOs offering a variety of services in their local communities.
Some of these CBOs may not necessarily deliver the types of direct services envisioned by CPUC staff. Yet, they either specialize or help coordinate in meeting independent living, housing, transportation, employment and training, health care, and other vital services. Conversely, this network can be threatened by unnecessary restrictions on CTF eligibility. CBOs need a broader definition of indirect services to qualify for the discount. Losing it could dramatically increase their operational costs and force cutbacks reducing or eliminating these supportive services.
We acknowledged that the CTF is not designed to support their overall operational budgets or to allow them to purchase new technology. However, the CPUC must acknowledge that CBOs assisting people with disabilities typically operate on shoe string budgets, so the real world consequences of losing or being unable to qualify for the CTF should not be a cut and dry consideration if there is a nexus in providing valuable indirect services.
In closing, we testified that CFILC and our member ILCs prioritize closing the digital divide and opening up equal access to technology. This can best be accomplished by supporting the Consensus Recommendations so that the final recommendations can authorize a combination of direct and indirect services by participating CBOs.
Disability Community Testimony Well-Received by CPUC: CFAT and TURN agreed that the taking into account the unique technology needs of people with disabilities and the importance of maintaining a network of CBOs to support independent living are important considerations for the continued negotiations on CFT eligibility for CBOs. In addition, the CPUC Commissioner and ALJ at the Northern California hearing seemed responsive to these talking points. Similarly, at the conclusion of Mario Janesin’s testimony that made similar points, the CPUC Public Adviser requested a copy of his testimony for entry into the record.
Conclusion: Utility rate increases and preserving programs such as the CTF that help make acquiring advance technology affordable and accessible to people with disabilities are important issues of statewide and local concern. We will continue to monitor and advise CFILC Board Member about the outcome of the discussions on the CTF final rulemaking process. In addition, we will continue to partner with the utility consumer advocates that have been very receptive to the unique needs of our ILCs and our consumers on issues of mutual concern.
Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
Special Report: The California Public Utilities Commission May Adopt Rules Making Many CBOs Ineligible for Discounted Voice or Internet Services July 22nd, 2014 • Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
Important Notice That New Regulations May Impact the Operational Budgets of CFILC and Member ILCs: On January 24, 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) initiated a rulemaking process (R.13-01-010) that could significantly change the eligibility criteria for many nonprofit CBOs currently participating in the California Teleconnect Fund (CTF). The program allows eligible CBOs to receive a 50 percent discount on a variety of communications services.
CFILC and almost all of California’s ILCs participate in the discount program. Accordingly, you may wish to confirm if your ILC is enrolled and if the loss of the discount, if it occurs, would affect your center’s budget.
The Discount Program is Designed to Close the Digital Divide: The CTF was established by the Legislature in 1999. In operates with related Federal statutes to help bridge the digital divide affecting many low-income individuals and families and underserved communities that lack equal access to advanced communication technologies. The discount program allows eligible CBOs serving these communities of interest to help their consumers close the digital divide.
.For a variety of reasons, people with disabilities are among the population segments harmed by the digital divide. According to the American Association of People with Disabilities’ (AAPD) Telecommunications and Technology Policy Institute, 54% of adults living with a disability use the internet, compared with 81% of non-disabled adults. In addition, 41% of disabled adults have broadband at home, compared with 69% of those without a disability.
CFILC is Partnering With Utility Consumer Advocate: CFILC’s Sacramento Office is monitoring the proposed rule. We are partnering the Center for Accessible Technology (CAT) and The Utility Reform Network (TURN), to organize consumer opposition to many of the recommendations made in a CPUC staff report on the CTF.
The reasons are that the staff report recommends that the CPUC strictly narrow the eligibility criteria for CBOs. The recommendations would make many CBOs ineligible for certain Voice, VoIP, and other internet services.
The CPUC rulemaking process has begun and we plan to testify with CAT and TURN at an upcoming Public Participation Hearing (PPH) at Rancho Cordova in the Sacrament Region. TURN is also reaching out to other CBOs to encourage them to submit Public Comment Letters or testify at the PPH at Rancho Cordova on July 29th or at another one in Long Beach scheduled for July 31st. If you are interested in participating at either hearing, the contact information is included in this report.
Purpose of the Fund: The CTF was established to promote universal telephone service and access to advanced telecommunications services. It offers discounts to qualifying schools, libraries, hospitals, health clinics, and CBOs. Eligibility includes tax exempt 501(c)(3) or 501(d) nonprofit organizations offering health care, job training, job placement, 211 referral and information services, educational instruction, or a community technology program to provide access to and training in the Internet and other technologies.
Brief Summary of CPUC Staff Recommendations: The consumer advocates believe that the staff report reflects their concerns about the historic growth of participating CBOs and the difficulty in monitoring compliance. There are more than 9,000 participating CBOs and the CTF’s $92.4 million budget represents more than 16 percent of California’s universal service budget. To date, monitoring and enforcement has been lax, so the report would strictly limit eligibility to replace it with a simple “check off” system.
Among other things, the staff report recommends that the CTF should be revised to:
• Reduce the existing $50 million annual total funding limit for CBOs from $50 million to $5 million;
• Require periodic evaluation and recertification;
• Limit eligibility exclusively to the share of cost incurred by CBOs offering direct service community technology training programs (e.g. computer or advanced technology training classes or giving consumers access to dedicated office computers);
• Prohibit CBOs from using the discount to subsidize acquisition of communication technology systems for general use or to reduce its overall operational expenses;
• Require CBOs to provide direct services at specific locations and limit it by geographic region or zip codes. This may limit the use of mobile offices or may it more difficult to quality if the CBO has large catchment areas extending beyond city or county boundaries;
• Eliminate CTF discounts for voice services, unless it is the only means of internet access; and
• Eliminate the 50 percent discount and apply a fixed dollar amount.
Consumer Advocate Perspective: CAT and TURN believe that the existing CTF is working well and that it is consistent with original legislative intent to advance access to universal telecommunications services in underserved communities. They agree that ILCs provide important direct and indirect services to our consumers in closing the digital divide.
Moreover, they oppose limiting the eligibility criteria and argue that the CTF should be broadly interpreted due to rapid changes in emerging communications technology never envisioned in 1999. They disagree that that the number of participating CBOs is unreasonable or that CTF funding is because emerging technology is widening the digital divide.
“Direct” Versus “Indirect” Services: CAT has also taken the position that the goals of the CTF need to be clarified and should include both direct and indirect services to members of underserved communities. The most important criteria should be the client base that is being served as long as disadvantaged Californians benefit, the CBO should be eligible.
Direct services are important, but many indirect services are just as valuable in closing the digital divide. For example, while some ILCs offer computer or internet training programs or allow consumers to use dedicated computers, others do not offer these direct services. For the most part, enrollment in the CTF did not require the specification of services, although nearly all ILCs would qualify under CAT’s definition of indirect services. However, the CPUC needs to be convinced.
For example, I & R services are a core service that often relies upon the availability of advanced communications technology. It enables ILC to search for information or make referrals on behalf of consumers who may lack access to that technology. CAT argues that indirect services are equally valuable as direct training programs to promote universal access.
As evidenced by the AAPD report, the digital divide for people with disabilities is largely attributable to affordability. Yet, consumers wishing to use technology for job searches or securing benefits can have equal access if they are assisted by an ILC.
Talking Points for Hearing Testimony and Public Comment Letters: In order to highlight uniform arguments, CAT and TURN are reaching out to ILCs and other CBOs to encourage them to actively participate in the rulemaking process. Their Talking Points include:
• The CPUC should keep the 50 percent discount for CBOs and should not apply any fixed dollar amount formula;
• The CPUC must conduct more research, analysis, and interact with the disability community and other underserved communities before proposing the elimination of services such as Voice, VoIP, or other internet services;
• The discount should not be available exclusively for CBOs that offer direct services;
• CBOs that currently participate in the discount program and that provide both direct and indirect services to underserved communities, should remain eligible and any changes should be phased-in;
• Rather than examining service delivery by geography, the areas served by CBOs must focus on the communities and the consumers receiving both direct and indirect services; and
• In fulfilling its objective to review and possibly reform the CTF, the CPUC needs to examine the eligibility requirements for all fund recipients, not just CBOs.
Next Steps: To date, the participation level of CBOs in the rulemaking process has been very low. It has been only fairly recently that the California Association of Nonprofits has mobilized, although they are primarily focused on the proposed reduction in the maximum annual funding level for CBOs from $50 million to $5 million.
Other CBOs may participate. However, unless CFILC and ILCs take action on behalf of our consumers, the needs of the disability community will not be heard.
Another potential obstacle is that during the first Public Comment period, only a handful of CBOs wrote to preserved the existing CTF. Unfortunately most of their letters stated that the CTF allowed them to purchase advanced communications equipment or subsidized their overall operational budgets. These arguments may to be more harmful than helpful, because these are expressly excluded as authorized uses.
TURN’s outreach plan is to encourage CBOs to participate in the upcoming PPH in Rancho Cordova and in Long Beach. Here is the location and contact information:
Tuesday, July 29, 2014, 1:00 p.m.
Rancho Cordova City Council Chambers
2729 Prospect Park Drive
Rancho Cordova, CA 95670
Call-in phone number: 1-866-759-3680, Passcode: 3783287#
Thursday, July 31, 2014, 1:00 p.m.
Long Beach City Council Chambers
333 West Ocean Blvd.
Long Beach, CA 90802
Call-in phone number: 1-866-836-1585, Passcode: 9087049#
The hearings’ locations are wheelchair accessible. If you need a language or Sign interpreter, or would like to request assisted listening devices, please contact the CPUC Public Advisor’s Office at least five days prior to the hearing. Here is that contact information:
CPUC Public Advisor’s Office, Room 2103
505 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 1-866-849-8390 (toll-free) or 1-415-703-2074
1-866-836-7825 (toll-free) or TTY 1-415-703-5282
Any ILC that interested in participating at either PPH may wish to coordinate with TURN by calling Ana Montes at (415) 929-8876 ext. 314 or by email at email@example.com. Henry Contreras, CFILC’s Public Policy Director, will attend the Rancho Cordova PPH in Rancho Cordova and can help Long Beach PPH participants in drafting their comments.
Please Note: Participants can offer comments, but must be physically present in order to do so. Those calling-in may listen, but may not testify. However, they may submit written informal comments directly to the CPUC Public Advisor’s Office.
In addition to the Talking Points in this report, participating ILCs may wish to: (1) share stories on how your ILC provides “access” to underserved people with disabilities; (2) explain the role that ILCs with limited financial technology resources may still be able to help close the digital divide for your consumers through the provision of indirect services; and (3) which types of indirect services should be eligible for the discount and why.
Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
DOL Rule and AB 241 October 9th, 2013 • Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director
"Nothing about us without us" is a powerful statement and rallying cry. However, a recent Federal rule mandating overtime for personal attendants, combined with a new and burdensome state law, AB 241, stifled our voices. Both were primarily organized by powerful unions that had pledged against pursuing any personal attendant wage increases without additional funding to offset increased costs for people with disabilities.
In November 2011, SEIU and national disability organizations co-signed a landmark pledge. It stipulated they would unite and combine forces to protect disabled individuals' direction and control over their care services whenever attendant wage and benefit increases are pursued.
In reality, they were empty promises. The ink had barely dried before the Department of Labor promulgated union-backed overtime and minimum wage regulations in December 2011! Two months later, AB 241's predecessor was introduced encompassing huge wage and benefit requirements, including overtime.
The disability community wasn't consulted about either initiative. So, where was the promised unity and collaboration?
Throughout the rulemaking and legislative processes, disability advocates argued that overtime was unaffordable for many people with disabilities. It includes those paying out of pocket for unsubsidized care and the working disabled who already pay a considerable share of their salary for home and workplace attendant care.
People with severe disabilities and complex needs in capitated waiver programs and Medicaid will be hardest hit. Absent government funding for overtime costs, services must be sacrificed with commensurate increased hospitalization or institutionalization risks. Congress and state legislatures are unlikely to fund expensive overtime costs, so service hour caps are inevitable.
Disability advocates proposed limiting mandatory overtime to 3rd party providers. The compromise would have covered 70 percent of all attendants without imposing unaffordable overtime costs and spending caps. Their compromise was disregarded.
In the Legislature, CFILC and our allied partners strongly opposed both AB 241 and its predecessor. The Legislature eventually passed it with a 3-year sunset date and the appointment of a gubernatorial committee to assess how mandatory overtime affected attendants and disabled employers. We argued that it made little sense to study those effects after overtime was mandatory for 3 long years.
The Federal rule at least delays implementation until 2015 to give the disability community and States time to "adjust" to overtime. However, AB 241 takes effect January 2014 without any adjustment period. Disabled employers simultaneously will begin paying the phased-in $10 hourly state minimum wage increase.
More confusion will result because the Federal rule triggers overtime after 40 per week, while AB 241 triggers it after 9 hours per day or 45 weekly hours. Accordingly, disabled employers must somehow wield through complex trigger mazes. To avoid overtime, they'll face hiring and scheduling additional attendants or eliminating service hours.
Attendants will also be harmed. If overtime becomes unaffordable, many will lose work hours or be forced to find multiple employers. Consequently, employment may become unstable with reduced overall earnings, especially after service hours are capped.
The Governor's already announced that the Federal rule will necessitate capping IHSS at 40 weekly hours. Attendants currently caring for disabled family members and working extra paid hours no longer will be paid for those hours, thereby reducing their earnings.
Sadly, the bottom line is that there'll be few "winners" and many "losers" when the dust settles.
Henry J. Contreras, CFILC Public Policy Director