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National Disability Institute's Washington Insider is a monthly newsletter highlighting key federal policy news that impacts the financial futures and economic empowerment of all people with disabilities. The Washington Insider tracks legislative and policy initiatives gaining momentum on Capitol Hill, specifically in the areas of taxation, asset building and economic development.

 

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April 2014 | Vol. 6, Issue 3
CONTENTS
Challenge to Section 503 Regulations Rejected
Personal Savings Initiative to Better Prepare Individuals for Retirement and to Save Adequately
Foundation Program Makes Maine First State to Establish Universal Children’s College Savings Accounts
Bipartisan Housing Finance Reform Agreement Reached
CFPB Launches New Community Financial Education Project
Senate Finance Committee Holds Congressional Hearing to Discuss Paid Tax Preparers
March Employment Profile


 
Challenge to Section 503 Regulations Rejected

On March 21, 2014, Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. lost its case challenging the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs’ (OFCCP) implementation of new Section 503 regulations. The court concluded that the Department of Labor (DOL) reasonably rejected the construction industry’s argument that, due to the “uniquely hazardous and physical” nature of construction jobs, they couldn’t find qualified workers with disabilities and that a utilization goal for people with disabilities was inappropriate.

Associated Builders and Contractors is a trade association that represents more than 19,000 construction-industry firms. Many of its members perform work on government construction contracts and are subject to Section 503 because they have more than 50 employees.

The new final Section 503 rule requires government contractors take affirmative steps to employ and advance the employment of qualified individuals with disabilities.

Defendants explained that OFCCP had become concerned that the regulations implementing Section 503 had not sufficiently advanced the employment of qualified individuals with disabilities because “the percentage of people with disabilities in the labor force in March 2010 was 22.5 compared with 70.2 for persons with no disability” and “the unemployment rate for those with disabilities was 13.9 percent, compared with 10.1 percent for persons with no disability.” Accordingly, in July 2010,OFCCP requested public comment and input on ways to strengthen the regulations. Many respondents stated, “that quantitative and measurable analyses similar to those for minorities and women were needed to make affirmative action for individuals with disabilities ‘more than a paperwork exercise.’”

Thus, OFCCP proposed three major changes to its Section 503 regulations: 1) requiring contractors to gather information on the disability status of job applicants; 2) requiring contractors to compile that data and related data on new employees, along with the total number of job openings, job applicants, and jobs filled; and 3) establishing a utilization goal to provide a benchmark against which contractors can measure the efficacy of their affirmative-action steps.

The court concluded that DOL was correct that failure to meet the utilization goal could not form the basis for a finding that an employer has violated the rule, but contractors are still required to “annually evaluate [their] utilization of individuals with disabilities.” DOL argued that the utilization goal produces no injury-in-fact because failure to meet the goal does not subject a contractor to punishment, cannot factor into the agency’s investigative decisions, and triggers only obligations that are already required of contractors independently. The plaintiff countered that its members must engage in a costly annual utilization analysis to track their compliance with the goal and to fix any problems that are identified, and that failure to engage in this analysis would place them in violation of the rule and subject to its penalties.

The court analyzed the text of Section 503, which delegates broad authority to the President to define ways in which contractors must engage in affirmative action. Nothing in Section 503, the remainder of the Rehabilitation Act, or the Americans with Disabilities Act precludes the use of benchmarks for workforce diversity or data collection and analysis to help meet those benchmarks. Nor does the rule violate Section 503’s mandate to improve the employment position of qualified individuals with disabilities. The court concluded that it “. . . must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress.” It elaborated that because the text of Section 503 grants unqualified authority over the scope of the affirmative-action requirement and nothing in the Rehabilitation Act or any other statute forbids the tools OFCCP has chosen, OFCCP’s interpretation is subject to deference.

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Personal Savings Initiative to Better Prepare Individuals for Retirement and to Save Adequately

On April 23, National Disability Institute (NDI) staff was in attendance for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) announcement of the launch of the new Personal Savings Initiative, co-chaired by former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Jim Lockhart, former Deputy Commissioner of the Social Security Administration under President George W. Bush.

As part of its work, the Initiative will meet with various policymakers, stakeholders, thought leaders and experts representing a variety of public and private interests to formulate bipartisan solutions that can, first and foremost, address the serious problems of inadequate retirement preparation and lack of sufficient personal savings among countless Americans, while at the same time attract attention from, and ultimately pass, both Chambers of Congress.

The Initiative’s establishment could not come at a more pressing time, as a recent poll found that 25 percent of all Americans would be unable to come up with $2,000 in 30 days and another 19 percent would only be able to by selling their possessions or through a payday loan. In addition to the fact that current projections indicate the Social Security Trust Fund will be insolvent between 2016-2017, and data shows a steady decline in the number of employers offering a defined benefit plan, or pension, to employees – opting for defined contribution plans, or 401(k) plan, in its place.

During the press conference, Sen. Conrad expounded on the scope of the Initiative’s work, indicating it would be all-encompassing, and expressed optimism that they would be able to draft formal policy recommendations in 2015 – although members have yet to meet formally. Moreover, both Sen. Conrad and Mr. Lockhart agreed that the current policy limiting asset limits for beneficiaries to below $2,000 was a major concern and a disincentive to save.

NDI has been a leader in moving the debate forward on current asset limits as it relates to public benefit eligibility, as well as advocating for greater financial security for the millions of people with disabilities, many of whom rely on public benefits to simply make ends meet.

It is NDI’s hope that the Financial Savings Initiative will give thoughtful consideration to revising current federal asset limit guidelines and develop real world solutions that ensure federal policy gives every American, with and without disabilities, the opportunity to improve their financial capacity and build a brighter economic future.  

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Foundation Program Makes Maine First State to Establish Universal Children’s College Savings Accounts

On March 6, the Harold Alfond Foundation announced that all newly born Maine infants would automatically receive a $500 grant in a 529 College Savings Plan for postsecondary education. Prior to this, since 2009, Maine has offered a program in which parents had to open a 529 college savings plan account in order to receive a $500 grant. Known as the Harold Alfond College Challenge, and funded through the Harold Alfond Foundation, the fund had a 40 percent participate rate.

“Since 2009, we have funded nearly 23,000 grants, investing almost $11.5 million on behalf of Maine’s children,” said Greg Powell, chairman of the Foundation. “But it is not enough. To meet the future workforce needs of Maine’s economy, we need every baby to have the $500 Alfond grant — not just the opportunity to receive it.” Automatic enrollment means that every child will have access to a $500 grant, regardless of whether or not their parents choose to open an individual savings account. If an Alfond Challenge beneficiary does not pursue postsecondary education by age 28, the Alfond Challenge deposit, including earnings, will be returned to the Alfond Scholarship Foundation for future awards.

In addition, the Foundation will extend these savings accounts to babies born since January 1, 2013 not already enrolled in the program. Based on birth rates, the Foundation estimates an average annual payout of approximately $6 million to cover grants for 12,000 babies.

At the federal level, no legislation exists to extend universal child development accounts (CDA) to each American child. Currently, however, contributions to a 529 account and its resulting earnings are tax free.

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Bipartisan Housing Finance Reform Agreement Reached

On March 16, 2014, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) released legislative draft text of a bipartisan housing finance reform agreement. As drafted, the proposal would provide the most significant new investment in rental housing affordable to America’s neediest families in 40 years – providing more than $3.5 billion a year for the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF). In addition, the draft text would gradually wind down operations at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and create the new Federal Mortgage Insurance Corporation (FMIC) to regulate the secondary mortgage market. The proposal enjoys broad bipartisan support, including from the Obama Administration, senators, members of Congress, and other key stakeholders.

“Our housing finance system is badly in need of reform. And it is clear from the reaction to our announcement last week that many people agree,” said Chairman Johnson. “This proposal includes an explicit government guarantee in order to add stability to the economy, keep costs reasonable for borrowers and renters, and ensure fair access to the secondary market for all lenders. We also include important provisions that will preserve the 30-year mortgage as well as fair and affordable housing options for buyers and renters alike. I appreciate the enthusiasm from Committee Members, the Administration and key stakeholders and look forward to working with them to advance this effort.”

“Chairman Johnson and I have produced a comprehensive, bipartisan plan that winds down these too-big-to-fail entities, protects taxpayers by putting strong capital in a first-loss position, and provides broad access to mortgages for eligible borrowers,” said Ranking Member Crapo. “There is broad support to fix our flawed housing system, and today’s actions are a strong step toward ending the status quo.”

Building on Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) bill S.1217, the Housing Finance Reform and Taxpayer Protection Act, and lessons learned throughout the committee process, Chairman Johnson and Ranking Member Crapo drafted a proposal that is designed to protect taxpayers from bearing the cost of another housing downturn; promote stable, liquid and efficient mortgage markets for single-family and multifamily housing; ensure that affordable, 30-year, fixed-rate prepayable mortgages continue to be available and that affordability remains an important consideration; provide equal access for lenders of all sizes to the secondary market; and facilitate broad availability of mortgage credit for eligible borrowers in all areas and for single family and multifamily housing types.

All FDIC covered securities will be assessed 10 basis points to be used to fund affordable housing activities, with a total fund as high as $5 billion annually. The draft calls for 75 percent to go to NHTF, 15 percent  to the Capital Magnet Fund, and the remaining 10 percent would be used to establish a new Market Access Fund.

In addition, the Johnson-Crapo proposal creates a new tribal set-aside, directing two percent or at least $20 million, to federally recognized tribes or a tribally designated housing entities to be used for eligible affordable housing activities under Section 202 of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996. The bill also increases the small state minimum from $3 million to $5 million.

The Senate Banking Committee has yet to consider the proposal. However, most political observers anticipate a possible vote as soon as late April.

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CFPB Launches New Community Financial Education Project

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is launching a new Community Financial Education Project to collaborate with public libraries across the country. The project will help public libraries provide free, unbiased financial information and referrals. CFPB will work with libraries to help build local partnerships and to promote them as community resources. The CFPB aims to amplify its partners’ work by making libraries vital financial education hubs in communities across the country.

CFPB’s national partners, including representatives from library associations and local libraries, government agencies and financial education practitioners participated in a panel discussion on April 7, 2014  to shape a national dialogue on how to coordinate the efforts of financial educators. Hosted by the CFPB Office of Financial Education, as part of Money Smart Week, the event included a panel discussion featuring various government officials and stakeholders.

During the panel discussion, Charles Evans, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, spoke about Money Smart Week, which was created in 2002, and its goal to raise awareness of various existing financial resources.

CFPB Director Richard Cordray talked about libraries and their evolution over the preceding decades. Libraries now offer skill-building courses, free Internet access, and digital media in addition to their more traditional services. Unfortunately, however, they have been adversely affected by the economic recession; during a time in which more people are visiting their local library seeking computer access and skill-building programs. People need help in identifying unbiased and accurate materials for financial education and literacy, and Director Cordray believes libraries can help in this endeavor by connecting local partners and providing pertinent training to library staff. He stated that the CFPB will provide online and in-person trainings across the country, and it is his hope, ultimately, that the CFPB will learn more about consumers’ needs and help them become more financially secure. 

Brooklyn Public Library Director of Adult Learning Kerwin Pilgrim spoke about the Brooklyn public library and its programs, classes and online resources. Library officials hope to rebrand the Brooklyn Public Library System to include financial education and investor resources. The library has targeted, and successfully engaged, young adults in financial programs such as budgeting. 

Carolyn Anthony, President of the Public Library Association (PLA), explained that the PLA website has a wealth of information, including grant information for qualifying libraries as well as information about financial literacy on its “Money Smart” webpage. 

Finally, CFPB Seniors Content Specialist Dan Rutherford discussed five strategies the CFPB will focus on for libraries, as identified by a survey which pooled nine libraries and surveyed more than 700 patrons. Upon completion, the CFPB compiled these five strategies:

  1. Amassing unbiased information in libraries.
  2. Advertising and marketing such resources.
  3. Building coalitions
  4. Collaborating and the exchange of ideas among librarians.
  5. Offering support and training for librarians.

For more information, please send an email to financialeducation@cfpb.gov or visit www.smartinvesting.ala.org. In addition, the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) website, www.imls.gov, has readily available resources so that libraries and museums can work together with partners in the field to improve financial literacy. IMLS will have a series of webinars for library staff on this topic.

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Senate Finance Committee Holds Congressional Hearing to Discuss Paid Tax Preparers

A recent study conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that out of a sample of 19 paid tax returns only two preparers were able to calculate the correct refund amount.  Some of the common errors discovered included:  1) not reporting non-form W-2 income; 2) claiming an ineligible child for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); 3) not asking the required eligibility questions for the American Opportunity Tax Credit; and 4) not providing an accurate preparer tax identification number. Further findings indicated that tax returns by paid preparers had a higher percentage of errors (60 percent) as compared to self-prepared returns (50 percent). 

On April 8, 2014, National Disability Institute (NDI) attended a Congressional hearing of the United States Senate Committee on Finance entitled, “Protecting Taxpayers from Incompetent and Unethical Return Preparers.” Committee attendees included Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senator Robert Casey (D-Pa.).  During the hearing, the Committee heard testimony from various organizations in favor of and opposed to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulation of paid preparers.

Panelists testifying in support of IRS oversight and regulation included: Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) John Koskinen; Nina Olson, IRS’ National Taxpayer Advocate; James McTigue Jr., Director, Tax Issues, Government Accountability Office; William Cobb, President & CEO, H&R Block; Janis Salisbury, Chair of the Oregon Board of Tax Practitioners; and Chi Chi Wu, Staff Attorney for the National Consumer Law Center.  Their testimonies in support of regulation cited:  1) the complexity of our nation's tax laws drives 90 percent of taxpayers (usually low to moderate income) seek some form of assistance; 2) a large number of taxpayers may be poorly served by return preparers that engage in fraud; and 3) when unethical behavior does occur, the IRS is forced to take a reactive approach. 

Panelists opposed to oversight and regulation were Dr. John Barrick, Associate Professor at Brigham Young University, and Dan Alban, Attorney, Institute for Justice. Both panelists testified that there are three problems associated with or limits on regulation: 1) the inability to regulate the most unscrupulous and unethical preparers; 2) inability to impose ethics on either registered or unregistered preparers; and 3) the creation of winners and losers in the return preparation industry.

An alternative to paid preparers is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA) designed to assist low- and moderate- income taxpayers with filing their income taxes. In 2011, the IRS conducted an evaluation of VITA prepared tax returns and confirmed an accuracy rate of 85 percent, resulting in $1.9 billion in tax refunds for taxpayers with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $21,000. 

According to Chairman Wyden, “paid tax preparers don’t have to meet any standards for competence in order to prepare someone else’s return. As a result, this lack of meaningful oversight too often harms those citizens who need it most.”  This is an important issue to National Disability Institute because affordable and competent tax preparation is vital to the financial well-being of all individuals with disabilities. NDI will continue to monitor these developments closely as tax preparation is a key area of organizational focus as it affects the financial stability of millions of taxpayers, with and without disabilities

For more information, please visit the Senate Finance Committee’s webpage.

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March Employment Profile

Disability employment statistics for March show that the unemployment rate among people with disabilities rose to 14.5 percent. 19.5 percent of people with disabilities are in the labor force, while among people with no disability, that figure is nearly 69 percent.

Data on people with disabilities covers those over the age of 16 who do not live in institutions. The first employment report specific to this population was made available in February 2009 and are now released monthly.

U.S. Disability Employment Profile
Statistic
With Disability
Without Disability
 
Mar
2013
Mar
2014
Mar
2013
Mar
2014
Percent of Population in the Labor Force
20.7
19.5
68.7
68.7
Employment-Population Ratio
18.0
16.7
63.6
64.2
Unemployment Rate
13.0
14.5
7.4
6.5
As reported by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table A-6

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