Delaware chief justice urges hike in gasoline tax

Leo Strine

DOVER — Members of the Bond Committee met Monday for the first time to begin deliberations on the budget with the Department of Education and the judiciary appearing before the committee.

Although Gov. John Carney is not scheduled to release his recommendations until the end of March, the Bond Committee still spend hours discussing the needs from several state agencies and branches of government.

Former Gov. Jack Markell’s capital proposal called for spending $555.3 million in the upcoming fiscal year, with that sum almost evenly divided between construction projects and the Department of Transportation’s budget.

Monday included brief discussions on the gasoline tax, which is currently 23 cents per gallon. Chief Justice Leo Strine urged lawmakers to increase it, and committee co-chair Sen. Dave Sokola, D-Newark, later noted the tax is lower than in surrounding states.

Gasoline tax revenue is projected to slightly decline over the next seven years. Sen. Sokola said increasing the tax for diesel fuel could not only bring in revenue but could also discourage large trucks from driving on the state’s roadways and thus better preserve infrastructure.

Attempts to raise the gasoline tax over the past three years have been unsuccessful. Sen. Sokola said he was unaware of any proposals to increase it this session.

The state is seeing growing costs in education due to an influx of students, including those with special needs. Southern New Castle County is especially booming, according to the Department of Education.

The Appoquinimink School District recently passed a referendum in December.

Gov. Markell had recommended allocating $38.7 million for projects in the Caesar Rodney School District, as well as $32.9 for Cape Henlopen School District.

Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, asked Secretary Susan Bunting Monday about expanding use of police officers or constables in schools. The Indian River School District, which Dr. Bunting previously served as superintendent of, was an early adopter of school resource officers.

“We can build magnificent towers and buildings for education … but if the environment for the students fails to be one for learning the n we compromise what we are attempting to deliver,” he said. “Those in education do an outstanding job but safety in the buildings and change in behavior habits sometimes present a challenge.”

Later, Chief Justice Strine, for the third consecutive year, attempted to convince lawmakers to support his plan for new Family Court buildings in Kent and Sussex.

While building two new courthouses would cost $150 to $200 million, the current ones are cramped and unsafe, he insisted.

Chief Justice Strine also suggested changes may be coming to the state’s system of fines. Traffic tickets, for instance, have about $70 in costs unrelated to speeding attached to them.

Those fines, the chief justice told Bond Bill members, are holding back disadvantaged members of society.

“A lot of these folks who commit some of these offenses, if they had the money to pay the fine, they wouldn’t have done the shoplifting or whatever,” he said.

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