Delaware lawmakers set to debate death and taxes

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Among the issues legislators might revisit is the debate to repeal the death penalty. Among those advocating for them to do are those who have gathered outside Legislative Hall in February protesting, among other issues, capital punishment. (Delaware State News file photo/Craig Anderson)

DOVER — With the General Assembly set to meet Tuesday after its annual February break, uncertainty is in the air.

Will the minimum wage be increased?

Will death penalty repeal supporters be able to sway three additional representatives?

Is the state government’s revenue trending up or down?

Most of the initial action appears to be in the House, which will host several new bills and others that already passed the Senate.

Legislation to increase the minimum wage from $8.25 to $10.25 in four 50-cent increments passed the Senate on party lines in January. The bill has been placed in the House Economic Development Committee. With Republicans firm in their opposition, just getting it out of committee would require Democrats sticking together.

The Democratic majority has the numbers to pass the bill, but it is no certainty the caucus is all behind it.

After making one change, Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, said in January he did not plan to further amend the legislation to make it more amenable to those unsure of how to vote.

Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, has not taken a stand on the idea.

The House also could debate capital punishment. A bill repealing the death penalty for convicted murderers was defeated 23-16 on the final day of session before the break. However, with one supporter absent and another voting against the bill for procedural reasons, supporters need three additional votes, not five, to pass the legislation.

Primary House sponsor Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, said advocates of repeal have been working to sway representatives.

“We have people who are very much on the fence,” he said.

Sean M. Lynn

Sean M. Lynn

A small group of people gathered outside Legislative Hall several times during February, protesting, among other issues, capital punishment.

Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, who voted “no” in January but backs repeal, has three legislative days to ask for another vote. Lawmakers and activists have until the start of session on March 15 to convince three legislators to change their minds.

Rep. Lynn is undecided if he would call for another vote if he does not have the magic number of 21 supporters. Should the bill not gain the necessary support within three days, it would be dead.

Regardless of the outcome, Rep. Lynn is confident abolition of the death penalty is inevitable, even if it does not happen this year.

“It’s not a matter of if,” said the Democrat. “It’s going to happen at this point. It’s just a matter of when.”

Forthcoming legislation from Majority Leader Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, would place a limit on gun sales. Currently, if a dealer does not receive a response from the FBI regarding a background check on a prospective buyer within three days, he or she is allowed to sell the gun. Rep. Longhurst’s proposal would end what she referred to as a “loophole” in a February statement.

Several Democratic lawmakers revealed last month they intend to file a bill that would temporarily increase the state’s gasoline tax by 10 cents.

“I’m taking a political hit but I’m having this conversation because I think it’s the right thing to talk about,” Rep. Sean Matthews, D-Talleyville, insisted last month.

However, leading members of the Senate believe it will not pass.

Both President Pro Tempore Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, and Minority Leader Sen. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said there is not enough support behind the proposal, which has not yet been introduced as a bill.

“I presume the Democrat Party will be loath to put another tax on the gas with elections coming up,” Sen. Simpson noted.

Efforts to increase the state’s 23-cent per gallon gasoline tax fell short last year.

The budget will also consume much of the discussion. Riding a December uptick of $164 million in revenue, Gov. Markell’s January recommended spending proposal of $4.11 billion marks an increase of about 5.2 percent over the current fiscal year.

While the December report from the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council was good news for the state, there’s concern among some that was just a blip. Stagnant numbers from the March 21 DEFAC would not be welcome news. A decrease would be far worse.

“That’s my biggest worry, if you’d start seeing it going in the wrong direction,” Sen. Blevins said.

If revenue is forecasted to decline, and similar projections follow in April, lawmakers would face trouble they hoped they had dodged.

Cries from certain portions of the General Assembly to raise taxes would grow louder, although opposition is sure to remain strong.

“I think that some will try to take the easy way out and increase our taxes or try to,” Sen. Simpson said of reaction in the wake of potential

Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, back at work inside the Senate chamber Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

F, Gary Simpson

declining estimates.

Because the budget is still several months away from being finalized, legislators have time to make changes, although the situation becomes simpler if the DEFAC numbers remain solid.

The Senate Republican caucus has plans to introduce legislation dealing with poverty, with bills coming out as soon as this week.

With the state making changes to its corporate tax structure and business incentives in an effort to keep some of the new DuPont-Dow spinoff companies here, Sen. Simpson is hoping legislation friendly to Delaware’s three casinos succeeds.

The casinos are struggling due to competition from neighboring states and taxes seen as unduly high.

“They do have a monopoly, but the state has benefited greatly from that monopoly,” Sen. Simpson said.

If DEFAC projects a revenue increase, there should be enough support to provide some form of relief, he believes.

He joked the chamber could see some grandstanding and “long speeches” with four senators running for higher office, although that seems likely to take a backseat to the usual legislative business.

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

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