Budget will be top priority for returning lawmakers

 

DOVER — After a slow January and 45 days on break, the General Assembly returns Tuesday. Lawmakers will be confronting a $350 million gap between projected revenue and spending.

Although proposals to reinstate the death penalty, legalize marijuana and alter the Coastal Zone Act are also likely to be discussed between now and June 30, it all starts with balancing the budget, one of the few constitutionally mandated duties of the General Assembly.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s the only one right now,” said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach.

Increasing the degree of difficulty is that 2017 is not a typical year. Term-limited Gov. Jack Markell left office in January and was replaced by Gov. John Carney, who has yet to present his budget proposal.

While Gov. Markell issued recommendations which totaled $4.12 billion and included $212 million in new taxes shortly before departing, Gov. Carney’s budget may look nothing at all like his predecessor’s.

According to the governor’s office, Gov. Carney will likely release his budget March 23, three days after Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council issues updated revenue projections.

It’s a date lawmakers are anticipating.

“I think it’s kind of negated any real action of sorts on any huge initiative,” said House Minority Leader Daniel Short, R-Seaford, said.

Governor’s spending plan

At a town hall Wednesday, Gov. Carney discussed a possible spending plan, noting his budget will probably contain enough changes that every Delawarean will find something in it to dislike.

While stating he does not want to raise taxes or end important services offered by the state, the governor told the audience Delaware needs to make alterations to its revenue portfolio.

“The solution ought to be balanced between cuts to services and efficiencies, and it ought to be balanced between cuts and revenue, and it ought to be fair and equitable to everybody involved,” the governor, who has repeatedly stated the best way to fix a budget hole is to grow the economy, said. “And so as I look on the revenue side I want something where everybody shares a little bit in the pain. It’s not one group of folks shouldering the biggest burden.”

His budget will likely take aim at employee health care, which makes up about 20 percent of the current budget and is expected to keep increasing in cost.

In 2016, Gov. Markell proposed locking future employees into a Health Savings Account, but lawmakers rejected the idea. His planned solution this year was even bolder: converting health care plans for all workers who started after 2007 into HSAs.

Gov. Carney could encourage legislators to institute a statewide property, force the counties to re-assess property values that haven’t been touched in decades or shift some costs to local governments.

Eight years ago, the state faced a shortfall of around $800 million. Lawmakers combated that by raising taxes on top earners and cigarettes and temporarily cutting state employee pay, among other moves.

What will the solution look like this time around?

“From a Republican point of view we’d like to see government run more efficiently, save taxpayer dollars,” Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said.

But despite calls from some Republican lawmakers and citizens for large-scale cuts, Rep. Schwartzkopf believes such a fix is not feasible.

The “low-hanging fruit” was eliminated in 2009 and subsequent years, and slashing $350 million in spending would eliminate vital services, he said.

Not hostile to tax hikes

Rep. Short believes citizens are not hostile to the idea of higher taxes but want to be sure government waste and overhead is minimized.

“It was clear to me that the spending side should be looked hard at before we go into the aspect of making people pay more,” he said.

Session began slowly, as lawmakers waited with bated breath for a Senate special election that would determine control of the chamber.

The Democrats won Feb. 25, retaining their hold on the Senate, and with that out of the way, the ensuing months should include more action than in January.

One issue that should see strong debate is the death penalty, a topic that engendered plenty of controversy over the past few years. Efforts to repeal it in the prior two General Assemblies failed, but in August, the state Supreme Court struck down the statute.

The court ruled a portion of it conflicts with the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides for right to a jury trial.

“Because we see no way to sever (the offending portion), the decision whether to reinstate the death penalty — if our ruling ultimately becomes final — and under what procedures, should be left to the General Assembly,” justices wrote in the landmark opinion.

Death penalty reconsidered

Lawmakers will introduce legislation to put the death penalty back into place at some point, although exactly when that may be has not yet been decided, according to Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel.

A staunch advocate for capital punishment, he, like many others, believes the death penalty discourages some people from committing murder.

Opponents claim the death penalty does not prevent crime and is applied disproportionately to minorities, poor people and those with mental illnesses.

Complicating the discussion is Feb. 1’s inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, which killed one correctional officer.

“I think what happened at Vaughn may have potential to shift some of those votes,” Sen. Simpson said.

Rep. Schwartzkopf took that one step further, saying he has spoken to colleagues who voted for repeal last time but have since changed their minds.

A majority of representatives support capital punishment, but the Senate appears to have 11 members who are against it — the bare minimum. Just one senator opting to back reinstatement, however, would be enough to swing the vote.

Gov. Carney said in October he would “probably” veto legislation re-establishing the death penalty.

Bills directly resulting from the prison incident could also see light, although some legislators are waiting for the official investigations to conclude.

Sen. Lawson proposed raising pay for correctional officers last month. Rep. Schwartzkopf said something has to be done to improve retention levels and make guards safer.

Noting that he favors creating a five-year plan for implementing changes, Rep. Schwartzkopf cautioned policy revisions will take time.

The Joint Finance Committee, which spent several weeks meeting over break, will likely gather again after the governor unveils his budget idea. Among its topics for discussion will probably be corrections.

“The prison issue, which is foremost on a lot of people’s minds, I think one place that could be discussed is the Joint Finance Committee since there’s a lot of budget issues,” Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Wilmington Manor, said.

Attempt to legalize marijuana

Lawmakers may also attempt to legalize marijuana, with Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, saying in January she intends to introduce a bill in March that would allow recreational use of cannabis.

While Sen. Henry could not be reached for comment last week, she had previously expressed confidence a legalization bill would have enough support to pass. However, she did note she may not file the bill if the governor firmly opposes it.

Gov. Carney has said he does not support cannabis legalization.

Even if the bill is filed, Sen. Simpson said he does not expect it to have enough support.

Like many states, Delaware is struggling with opioids, which claimed the lives of 198 Delawareans in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The First State’s rate of 22 people per 100,000 was 12th in the country.

The General Assembly created a committee to examine drug deaths and made drug dealing a specific crime last session, and expanded treatment efforts could be passed this year.

A much more partisan issue, minimum wage, should see debate soon: Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, has already filed a measure to raise the state wage floor from $8.25 to $10.25 in four 50-cent increments.

A similar bill barely passed the Senate last year before stalling in a House committee, and this version does not appear to have the needed support this time around.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control will likely have a new secretary this month, after nominee Shawn Garvin spent several weeks in limbo. Republicans blocked the nomination in January, but with a majority, Democrats now have the numbers to force Mr. Garvin through.

“I intend to have that as the first vote when we go back,” Sen. McBride said.

Some Republicans may vote for Mr. Garvin this time around.

For decades, the Coastal Zone Act, first passed in 1971, has stood as a symbol of commitment to and guarantee of environmental protection along the Delaware River and Delaware Bay.

The law places restrictions on industrial activity along the coast, but Gov. Carney has proposed alterations, with an eye toward cleaning up old industrial sites and using them as sites for manufacturing facilities.

Sen. McBride anticipates some opposition to changes and said he would not want to weaken the act but “would be looking at opportunities where you might be able to tweak some things” to create jobs.

Republicans could push some of their pet proposals, such as right-to-work and prevailing wage reform, although they can expect firm Democratic opposition.

All that takes a backseat to the budget, however, and while the two parties may disagree as to the solution, legislative leaders say they will no choice but to cooperate.

“How we fix it could be the subject of many hours of discussion but the bottom line is we have to do it together,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.