Bills would raise dropout age and allow voting by mail

DOVER — Legislation introduced Thursday would increase the school dropout age to 18, establish voting by mail and set aside money to clean up the state’s waterways.

All three bills are sponsored mostly, if not solely, by Democrats, who control both chambers of the General Assembly.

House Bill 170 would raise the age for mandatory school attendance from 16 to 18 over a two-year period. The measure is similar to bills filed in prior legislative sessions.

“We stress over and over how invaluable an education is to being successful in life,” Rep. Debra Heffernan, a Bellefonte Democrat who is the main sponsor, said in a statement. “We see more and more that in today’s world — a high school diploma is no longer optional.

“It really is the minimum education for young people today who want economic success and independence. As we continue working to improve our educational system, we need to have students staying to complete their coursework and acquiring skills they need to be successful.”

Gov. John Carney endorsed the idea in 2016 during his run for governor.

Per the Delaware Department of Education, 700 of the nearly 41,000 students in a public high school dropped out in the 2016-2017 school year. The rate of 1.7 percent was a small increase over the prior year’s mark of 1.4 percent.

Of those 700 dropouts, a plurality of 246 were sophomores. The smallest number from any grade came from those in their senior year, with 105 students leaving school.

House Bill 170 would phase in the increased age, lifting it to 17 in 2022 and to 18 in 2023.

A student who does not meet the dropout age could still leave school if he or she has already earned a diploma, if his or her parents or guardians seek an exemption and have support from a medical professional or if he or she obtains a waiver from the district superintendent.

A waiver could be granted only if the student is at least 16 and “has an alternative learning plan for obtaining either a high school diploma or a secondary credential,” such as online courses, apprenticeships or community service.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the dropout age is 16 in 15 states, 17 in 10 states, 18 in 24 states and 19 in one state.

On average, individuals with a high school diploma make more money than those who have dropped out.

Voting by mail

House Bill 175 would allow Delawareans to vote without going to a polling place by enabling them to submit ballots through mail.

The measure, if it passes, would take effect for primary, general or special elections beginning in 2022. It would not replace in-person voting.

“Voting is one of the most important duties we have as citizens of our state and country. But limiting voting to one 13-hour period in person at a polling place limits people’s ability to cast their ballots,” Rep. Gerald Brady, a Wilmington Democrat who sponsored the bill, said in a statement.

“I served our country in the military to protect every person’s rights, including the right to vote. And I believe that we should be doing everything in our power to ensure that as many people have the opportunity to vote.

“Adding vote-by-mail gives Delaware residents one more option when deciding how to cast their vote. By giving residents a menu of options, we will increase participation in our elections and in our governance, which is what we should always strive for.”

Under the legislation, ballots would be sent to voters and could be returned to a county election office before election day but would not be counted until the day polls open.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports at least 22 states allow some form of voting by mail, although most of those only apply in very specific cases. Colorado, Oregon and Washington conduct elections entirely by mail, and a few more are set to join them.

Water, water everywhere

After an attempt to generate money for water cleanup by establishing a fee on tax filings and business licenses failed to make it through the General Assembly last year, lawmakers are back with a different proposal.

House Bill 200 would create a special fund to be used for water infrastructure projects, such as addressing water quality and limiting stormwater runoff. Unlike last year’s legislation, however, it would not create new costs to Delawareans but would instead divert at least $25 million in tax revenue to the fund each year.

“Frankly, I’m concerned with the fact that Delawareans have been exposed to dangerous drinking water. I’m worried that residents can’t use our recreational waterways due to contamination and pollution,” House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat and the bill’s chief sponsor, said in a statement.

“It’s horrifying to see that some roads are simply impassable in intense weather events due to faulty flood management. Is this the reality we want for the First State?

“It’s time to be bold, and lay the foundation so future generations do not face these detrimental ramifications. As one of the nation’s lowest-lying states, Delaware needs to act today and put the necessary funding into water infrastructure.”

According to a 2015 Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control report, more than 90 percent of the state’s waterways fall short of water quality standards because of pollution. That pollution stems from a variety of sources, such as fertilizer washed into waterways, salt used to prepare the roads ahead of snowstorms and animal droppings left on the ground.

In an April budget hearing, environmental officials estimated the total six-year cost to solve the wastewater dilemma at around $581 million.

Flooding and drainage are major issues throughout Delaware, and several Sussex County towns last year were found to have tainted water supplies.

The heavy rainfall the state saw last year — nearly all of Delaware received above-average precipitation totals, with most of New Castle and Kent counties getting at least 50 percent more than usual — only compounds the matter.

“This is a critical first step towards addressing the crisis-level needs we see throughout Delaware,” Senate Majority Whip Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat and the primary champion of the previous water bill, said in a statement. “From chronic flooding, to aging sewer systems, to drinking water that isn’t drinkable, Delaware desperately needs sustained investment in water infrastructure.

“This bill represents initial steps down a path of true commitment to meeting our water challenges. Let’s show immediate progress, and then push for even more investment to promote our economy and the health and safety of all Delawareans.”

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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