Business news from the State House News Service

Business news from the State House News Service

State’s new bathroom access law is in effect

A state law approved over the summer that went into effect October 30 allows people who present a doctor’s note to use employee-only restrooms at retail businesses with three or more employees on duty. If a public restroom is immediately accessible, businesses do not need to provide access to the private bathroom.

Businesses are not liable for any accidents that occur, unless there is negligence. Businesses are also not required to make improvements and may bar colitis and other sufferers from access to a bathroom if it would create an obvious health or safety risk.

The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation suggested that employers secure personal and company supplies and keep the bathrooms well stocked, clean, safe and accessible. The foundation said employers should inform their employees, especially managers, of the change in policy.

A first-time violation could result in a $100 fine, and a second violation could result in a $200 fine. The law is restricted to people with IBD, Crohn’s and other ailments that make bathroom access a necessity.

“Anyone who suffers with these diseases knows firsthand how difficult and traumatic it is to be denied access to a public restroom when they need it,” Foundation President Richard Geswell said in a statement. “Companies that enforce this law are doing a simple gesture that can make a big impact on someone’s life. It should be looked at as more of an act of human decency than an act of legislation.”

Massachusetts is the 13th state to pass a bathroom access law for people with gastrointestinal disorders, according to the foundation, which is working to pass similar legislation throughout the remaining states.

Mass home sales rose 18.5 percent Q3, price dip noted

Home sales in Massachusetts rose 18.5 percent in the third quarter and year-to-date sales over the first nine months of 2012 are up nearly 22 percent, according to data released October 25. The Warren Group also reported the median price of single-family homes in Massachusetts during September fell 4.5 percent to $277,000. It’s the first time since May that the median price statewide has dropped below $300,000.

Activity in the condo market is also up significantly. Condo sales in September rose more than 23 percent, third quarter condo sales are up 33 percent and year-to-date condo sales are up 27.5 percent. The median condo price held at $275,000.

“Home sales have reached the highest level in nine quarters, a strong sign that consumers have regained some confidence in the economy and are making home purchases with more enthusiasm,” Warren Group CEO Timothy Warren Jr. said in a statement. “But, the end of the summer selling season and a slight increase in unemployment could mean sales will slow at the end of the year.”

Study sees hurdles, opportunities in New England infrastructure

At $14.53 per kilowatt hour, Massachusetts is the fourth priciest state for electricity, behind New York, Connecticut, and Hawaii, according to a New England Council study released October 23. That ranking places Massachusetts just above other New England states, and the study recommends the region maintain its nuclear power plants, develop natural gas infrastructure, and consider an alternative liquefied natural gas terminal, which would provide backup capacity during peak demand, beyond the region’s lone on-shore terminal in Everett.

The study, which was written with the consulting firm Deloitte, also recommended weaning residents off home heating oil and onto natural gas, and developing a regional consensus on renewable energy, including offshore wind power. In some parts of Massachusetts, low costs are an advantage. The Interstate-91 corridor, which transects Vermont, New Hampshire, and western Massachusetts, can produce highly engineered products at a cost of only about 5 percent more than the southeast region of the country.

The Downeast corridor, running through New Hampshire and up the Maine coast, is slightly cheaper, but both are far less expensive than Boston, where highly engineered products are about 33 percent more expensive than the southeast. The council’s study recommended developing infrastructure, including broadband, and supporting job training and innovative financing strategies to boost the region’s competitiveness.

“Perhaps the most significant message of this year’s research is this: for every $1 billion New England invests in smart infrastructure, a potential 27,000 new and sustainable jobs may be created over and above the immediate construction work,” New England Council President James Brett wrote in the report’s introduction. “With this report, we present an unequivocal call to transform our thinking about infrastructure.”

Among the ideas the region should consider are consumption-based pricing for roadways, including a high-occupancy-toll lane on Interstate 93 through Boston. Other ideas including updating the region’s airports, improving the transfer of freight from train to truck, and developing rapid bus transport.

Flawed assumptions may lead to spike in public pension payments

In addition to the underfunding of public pension systems in Massachusetts, the investment returns assumed by 105 pension boards are unrealistic, according to a Pioneer Institute study released Wednesday. In a statement, James Stergios, executive director of the institute, said Massachusetts retirement boards assume an average annual rate of return of more than 8 percent while private sector companies with defined benefit plans generally assumed annual returns of between 4 and 5 percent.

According to the study, state payments to retire unfunded pension liabilities, based on current investment assumptions, will gradually increase from about $1 billion last year to about $3.2 billion in 2040. If all pension boards and liabilities are included, payments are projected to reach about $3.5 billion by 2040. However, under the most optimistic scenario presented in the study, one assuming annual returns of 7.5 percent, annual state payments, which include funds for the teachers’ retirement system, would hit $3.6 billion by 2040, or $3.9 billion if all 105 retirement boards are included.

And under a worst case scenario assuming returns of only 2 percent, state payments would soar to $7.9 billion by 2020 and statewide payments would rise to nearly $8.7 billion. The Patrick administration and the Legislature, in response to investment losses in 2008-2009 and in order to avoid a spike in pension system payments in the fiscal crisis that followed the last recession, extended the target date to fully fund the system from 2025 to 2040.

According to the study, the 105 pension boards reported liabilities of $922 billion at the end of 2010, of which almost $31 billion were unfunded. The study calls for “more rigorous actuarial assumptions and accelerated funding of liabilities,” noting the prevalence of high assumed investment returns “is likely to engender long-term underfunding and, ultimately, insolvency or significant cuts in benefits.” The study’s author is Iliya Atanasov, Pioneer’s senior fellow on finance.