Lawmakers talk business at chamber of commerce luncheon

 

DOVER — Many Kent County businesses are united firmly against a government-imposed hike in the minimum wage rate, an increase in the gasoline tax, and more state regulations.

The Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce’s annual Legislative Luncheon gave hundreds of men and women a chance to hear from Gov. Jack Markell and local lawmakers Friday.

The seven Kent County legislators on the stage all spoke as one on the need for providing financial relief to the state’s casinos and were nearly unanimous in their opposition to proposed tax increases.

Gov. Markell, a Democrat, got things started, saying the state has risen from ranking in the bottom 10 states in jobs in 2009, the year he took office, to fourth-best in the nation in 2015, according to Gallup.

“The role for government to play is to make sure that we’ve got a nurturing business environment,” he said.

He praised lawmakers for passing business-friendly legislation and stressed that companies have more choices about where to hire people from than ever before, a common theme in his speeches.

He spoke for about 15 minutes but didn’t take questions, unlike at last year’s event.

Not everyone believed the picture is as rosy as the governor describes, however.

“The reason we create more jobs than anybody else is because we were in a deficit further than anybody else,” said Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover.

A 2015 article from The Economist noted Delaware was the only state to see a decrease in wages from 2009 to 2014.

Several legislators criticized the state for interfering in business, blasting efforts to raise the minimum wage and other costs. Audience members frequently applauded as legislators detailed their views, opinions that generally aligned with the chamber’s stances.

“Increasingly and increasingly we are making it more economically viable to not hire people based on the cost of labor,” said Rep. Jeffrey Spiegelman, R-Clayton.

Rep. W. Charles “Trey” Paradee, D-Cheswold, was the only one of the seven lawmakers speaking at the event to support a minimum wage increase.

A bill that would raise the rate from $8.25 to $10.25 an hour in four 50-cent increments is set to be heard in the House Economic Development Committee Wednesday. It passed the Senate in January.

The audience at the luncheon was decidedly opposed to the bill.

“I feel that it makes the bar, that first rung of the employment ladder, way too high,” Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, said. “First-time job seekers can’t reach it. There are not going to be the job opportunities. It’s impossible.

“I believe the market does (set the rates). That’s what the market does. You compete for employees, you pay for the good ones, and the lesser ones are where they are. That’s exactly what we should do. Government, I’ve said it every time I’m here, should not get involved with business.”

The scene got heated briefly when Sen. Lawson criticized Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, alleging he was not telling the whole story on the minimum wage vote. Sen. Bushweller opted not to vote, which in practical terms, counts the same as a tally in opposition but is distinct from a clearcut no vote.

Sen. Bonini, who is running for governor, noted several times the public should not trust the General Assembly, implying lawmakers are overeager to increase spending.

Calls to help the state’s three casinos, which are struggling due to out-of-state competition, drew applause from the crowd.

“It is time for Delaware to restructure the financial relationship that the state of Delaware has with the casino industry so as to enable that industry to continue providing economic vitality and the jobs that it does well into the future,” said Sen. Bushweller. He is the primary sponsor of legislation that would eliminate the table game license fee, cut the table game tax rate and create credits for marketing and construction.

He noted lawmakers recently approved with little debate two bills designed to help the state keep two of the three spin-off companies resulting from DuPont’s planned merger with Dow Chemical.

In response to a question about a possible property tax to help clean up the state’s waterways, Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna, said Delaware would be “needlessly hitting people with a tax again.”

The majority of the lawmakers spoke out against a draft bill that would increase the state’s gasoline tax from 23 cents to 33 cents, with Sen. Bonini going even further and lamenting legislation raising Division of Motor Vehicles fees was passed last year.

As with the minimum wage, Rep. Paradee took a different stance, claiming the incoming money from the gasoline tax has remained static over the years due to cars becoming more efficient.

Lawmakers, he said, cannot put off discussion over the revenue source.

Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Camden, spoke in favor of changing prevailing wage laws, which govern what laborers are paid on state construction projects, and of establishing laws preventing workers from being forced to join unions.

“When you look at Kent County, the quality of our workforce, the education opportunities, access to (Del.) Route 1, (Interstate) 95, access to electricity costs, which are lower than New Castle County, access to natural gas, allow us the opportunity to have a right-to-work zone in Kent County for one year and let’s see what we can do to bring in,” he said.

The seven speakers weighed in on a proposal from the executive branch to change employee health care and increase some costs, a plan many workers have fiercely opposed.

There was a consensus state employees will have to pick up a greater share of the cost, although Rep. Spiegelman said the state needed to ensure it curbs fraud, waste and abuse in health care spending first.

“It’s just unrealistic that the premiums and the copays remain as low as they can,” Rep. Paradee said. “It’s a tough thing to have to say to the state employees and retirees, but that’s the way the world operates. That’s what all of you small-business people are struggling with.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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