Carney outlines plan in State of the State

Gov. John Carney speaks during the State of the State address at Legislative Hall on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Gov. John Carney’s 2019 State of the State both highlighted what the state’s chief executive sees as his administration’s main accomplishments over the previous two years and offered a look at his legislative priorities over the next five-plus months, touching on both divisive and noncontroversial issues.

The State of the State typically serves to set the tone for the rest of the legislative year, which ends June 30, and offers a look at some of the inclusions in the governor’s budget proposal, which will be unveiled next week.

Thursday, the governor teased initiatives he will push this year, including raising the age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21, banning certain homemade firearms and giving state employees a pay increase, and also stumped for changes he has already backed, such as expanding ballot access and providing more funding for students who live in poverty or aren’t native English speakers.

Championing bipartisanship, the governor contrasted Delaware with Washington D.C., where a refusal to compromise has led to a four-week government shutdown with no end in sight.

“Working hard and working together, we can do this,” Gov. Carney, a Democrat, said. “We can make the people who sent us here proud of what we do. And they can be confident in the knowledge their elected representatives are fighting for them and not fighting for sport.

Gov. John Carney plans to unveil his budget plan next week. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“So, before I say anything else from this podium today, I want to say this. Here in Delaware, we can do better, and we must do better. And I believe that working together, all of us, these next six months, we will do better.”

Hundreds of people crowded into the Senate chamber for the speech, the governor’s second State of the State and third joint address to the General Assembly. The remarks lasted about 35 minutes, with plenty of breaks for applause and few deviations by Gov. Carney from his prepared speech.

Although the governor devoted just a few sentences on it, his call for increasing from 18 to 21 the age to purchase cigarettes is sure to receive plenty of attention.

“That was a new one,” House Minority Leader Danny Short, a Seaford Republican, said afterward. “I hadn’t heard that before, so I guess the issue for me is I got a lot of friends that are in the military, 18 is the age for going in there. I do understand the health side of the issue. I think there’s other things we can do other than restrict the age, but we’ll see how that plays out.”

Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Democrat from Newark, is currently working on legislation that would make Delaware the seventh state seeking to prevent 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds from smoking. He said the exact language of the bill, including whether it would encompass other products like electronic cigarettes and chewing tobacco, is still being worked out and expects to file the measure in February.

“We know how unhealthy cigarette smoking is, we know how costly the health effects of cigarette smoking are and we believe that by helping young people postpone the bad habit not only will it make them healthier, it will save the state a tremendous amount of money in avoidable health costs,” he said after the address.

Referencing several gun control bills passed last year, Gov. Carney called for the General Assembly to back legislation that would ban 3D-printed guns and “ghost guns,” homemade firearms with no serial number. He also indicated a highly controversial proposal to prohibit the sale of “assault weapons,” which failed to pass out of a Senate committee last year, could be coming back.

The governor backed the measure in 2018, and President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, has indicated he wants a proposed ban, which Sen. Townsend intends to introduce at some point, to receive a floor vote.

Auditor Kathy McGuiness gets a hug as she enters the Senate chamber during the State of the State address at Legislative Hall on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

While the call for outlawing homemade guns could get some bipartisan support, the assault weapons ban is sure to once again cause gun rights advocates to flock to Legislative Hall.

“There’s probably some things we need to chill out on that are important to people individually but collectively overall are not,” Rep. Short said. “I think one of the problems I had today in the address is the assault weapons ban.

“That’s going to divide people, it’s going to create a little controversy people here in the hall and maybe cause people to separate on the more important issues. … Maybe we ought to be looking at what we can get done, versus what we would like to get done that we know is going to create controversy in the long run.

“I understand individual people have individual agendas, but that’s not one that as a great amount of what I would call congenial atmosphere in this building. It kind of causes folks to divide and be contentious.”

Depending on the outcome of the aforementioned bills in the Senate, more gun control measures could be forthcoming. House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Democrat who represents the Rehoboth Beach area, indicated after the speech Democrats may at some point file legislation to ban large-capacity magazines and increase the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21.

Measures that would accomplish the same thing failed to pass last year.

Gov. Carney hinted his budget proposal will include a salary increase for state workers, saying he will push for continued “investments in state employee pay.”

Most state employees received a $1,000 raise last year, while teachers got a 2 percent bump.

Gov. Carney also touched on an announcement he made Tuesday for added funding for disadvantaged students.

“Next week, when I release my budget, I will propose a new opportunity funding program, Delaware’s first real weighted funding plan. It will direct $60 million over the next three years to low-income students and English learners across the state,” he said in his address Thursday.

“The funding will pay for the type of help these students need: more reading and math supports, counselors, smaller class sizes and after-school programs. Let me tell you how this will be different from efforts tried in the past. Over the course of the next three years, the Department of Education … will work with district and charter leaders to review plans for spending this funding and track the results for students.

“We will also create a new statewide commission of community leaders that will evaluate this plan, track results and shine a light on best practices. They’ll also recommend new steps that will help our most disadvantaged students succeed.

“We can all agree that we need to do something dramatic to help these students. But here’s what we can’t do. We can’t just throw money at the problem. Simply spending more is not a guaranteed solution.”

The state is currently being sued over its education system, with advocates alleging a substantial percentage of Delaware students do not receive the necessary supports and so fail to get a quality education.

The governor pledged to push for the expansion of a program created last year to help educators in high-needs schools or fields pay off student loans and seconded his prior call to make it easier for people to vote. Bills to authorize early voting and same-day registration, which Gov. Carney called “common sense,” were filed Wednesday.

“There is nothing more fundamental to our quality of life as Americans than having access to the voting booth,” he said in the State of the State. “Right now, Delaware lags behind in making it easy and convenient for people to exercise their right to vote. We’re going to change that.”

Gov. Carney spent time highlighting economic development efforts, such as revamping the Coastal Zone Act, expanding the Port of Wilmington and creating a tax credit for individuals investing in select projects, while also offering a glimpse at a new fund aimed at attracting companies by making transportation improvements, although details on that were sparse.

The state’s unemployment rate of 3.8 percent is the best it’s been in nearly 11 years, he noted, although he failed to mention it continues to lag behind the national average.

Lawmakers of both parties spoke approvingly of the speech afterward, though Republicans, quite predictably, took issue with some of the items mentioned.

Some Democrats did appear a little less than thrilled with the mention of a 2018 executive order that seeks to limit budget growth by setting aside excess revenue for use in future years when money is tight. While the executive order is non-binding on lawmakers, it was only signed after a constitutional amendment backed by the governor was rejected by Democratic lawmakers.

Gov. Carney’s budget proposal will be released Thursday, offering more details at his priorities, and lawmakers will build on his recommendations over the next five months.

“This is a framework, this is an outline and it’ll be flushed out a little bit more next week,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

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