Delaware legislators facing a ‘budget reset’

 

Snow covers areas around Legislative Hall where the General Assembly convenes today. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

DOVER — Welcome back, John Carney. As a welcoming present, here’s a $350 million budget gap.

Gov.-elect Carney will be taking up office in Legislative Hall Jan. 17 after serving as lieutenant governor from 2001 to 2009.

He’ll be dealing with debates over the deficit, legalized marijuana, a higher minimum wage, a new death penalty, a heroin epidemic and more. Oh — and he may have to contend with a divided General Assembly.

Lawmakers convene today for the first leg of the 149th General Assembly,and while there are just three new faces across the two chambers, there’s major potential for more upheaval.

Sen Bethany Hall-Long, a Democrat who represents the Middletown-area 10th District, was elected lieutenant governor in November, meaning her seat will soon become vacant.

Once it does, the Senate will have 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans.

While Sen. Hall-Long will not be sworn in as lieutenant governor until after the legislative session begins, giving the Democrats a one-person majority at first, the late February or early March special election could throw things into major upheaval.

“It’s kind of like hold your breath until this special election in the Senate takes place,” House Minority Leader Daniel Short, R-Seaford, said.

Democrats have nominated former New Castle County Council President Stephanie Hansen, while 2014 GOP nominee John Marino is the Republican candidate.

Wilmington Manor Democrat David McBride, the new Senate president pro tempore, does not expect the looming special election to come into discussion in the chamber, believing the political debate will not interfere with legislative business.

Once the election is in the past, things should start falling into place with more ease.

Priority No. 1 will always be the budget.

Finances

“Everything starts with getting our finances in order,” Gov.-elect Carney said in a statement. “I will work immediately with Democrats and Republicans on a budget reset that looks comprehensively at state spending and how we’re paying for government services.

“And I plan to seek the public’s input about the budget challenges we face. We will also take steps quickly to restructure the Department of Education as a support agency to help districts and teachers better meet the needs of our students. And we’ll refocus the Delaware Economic Development Office to make it more entrepreneurial and effective.”

Lawmakers have already begun meeting with Gov.-elect Carney, and regular gatherings of legislative leaders and the governor’s staff — meetings informally known as Big Head — will continue throughout the session.

While the deficit appears ominous, House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, believes both parties are prepared to work together.

In 2009, legislators confronted a budget gap in excess of $800 million, ultimately eliminating it through several actions, including temporarily cutting state employee pay and raising some taxes.

“There’s only a few ways to get out of a deficit,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said. “One is to raise revenue, one is to cut spending, one is to do a combination of adding revenue and cutting spending, one is to add borrowing. I’m not crazy about adding borrowing.”

He expects legislators will again use a combination of spending and revenue to balance the budget.

The Joint Finance Committee, set to be chaired once again by Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, and Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, will have its work cut out for it.

Should the GOP win the special election, the new majority will select its own co-chair for the committee, replacing Sen. McDowell.

“There has not been lot of give and take over past eight years,” Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said. The Democrats have controlled the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the General Assembly since the 2008 election.

Pot, capital punishment and minimum wage

Outside of the budget, the issues of marijuana legalization, the death penalty and the minimum wage will likely see fierce debate.

Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, plans to file a bill to legalize cannabis at some point this year, although she is currently working on crafting it.

“It needs to be done in a way that protects the public,” she said.

While she believes there is enough support for it to pass, other lawmakers are not so sure.

“I think the long-term effect will be just as bad if not worse than smoking,” Sen. Simpson said.

A survey released by the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication in October found 61 percent of respondents supported legal pot. Gov.-elect Carney, however, is opposed.

Over the past few years, almost no subjects have been argued as passionately in the Delaware legislature as capital punishment.

In August, the Delaware Supreme Court struck down the state’s death penalty law, ruling a portion of it was unconstitutional.

Some legislators plan to change the provision, eliminating the unconstitutional portion of it so the state will once again be able to execute convicted murderers. Meanwhile, other lawmakers could introduce a measure to abolish capital punishment outright.

Senators voted to repeal the death penalty in 2015, but the bill failed in the House.

Assuming votes do not change, the special election would likely determine which side has enough votes in the Senate to either pass or block legislation. However, that assumption is no guarantee.

Gov.-elect Carney has said he would “probably” veto a bill putting capital punishment back in place.

“I think the death penalty will be close as it was in the Senate before, but I would think with Gov.-elect Carney expressing an early opinion that he would veto any legislation to change what the court did to re-establish the death penalty, I think that would go a long way toward not passing into legislation,” Sen. Simpson said.

Also returning from the last General Assembly in the form of a new bill is a proposal to raise the minimum wage. Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, intends to bring forth a nearly identical proposal that would bump the wage up by 50 cents from 2017 to 2020, ultimately increasing it from $8.25 to $10.25. After 2020, it would be tied to the federal Cost of Living Adjustment.

Republicans are opposed to it, with Rep. Short calling the increase “too big of a reach” for business owners.

Rep. Schwartzkopf thinks the proposal, which passed the Senate before stalling in a House committee last year, has a better chance to pass this time around.

Education, a very hot topic during Gov. Jack Markell’s tenure, should remain in focus. A proposal to redraw school district lines in Wilmington and adjust the school funding based on poverty levels saw some progress last year but ultimately did not pass.

While it is expected to come up again, Republican leaders believe any redistricting bill needs to include increased funding for impoverished areas downstate. The budget gap there should prove to be a hurdle.

Rep. Schwartzkopf noted there is also uncertainty stemming from potential changes enacted by the federal government, as a Republican administration prepares to take over the White House. “We’re going to have to see what happens on the national level,” he said.

Heroin also remains an issue. According to the Delaware Department of State, approximately 2 million Americans were reliant on prescription opioids in 2014, and drugs killed 204 Delawareans that year.

“Mental health and the drug issue is an issue that we need to be addressing because as you go out in to communities, into meetings and so forth, there’s an epidemic, quite frankly,” Sen. McBride said.

He also anticipates environmental issues will be debated. Some people want to change the Coastal Zone Act, something Gov.-elect Carney mentioned several months ago as a possibility.

The act prohibits certain industrial activities along the coast of the state, from Claymont to Fenwick Island, but with some vacant properties sitting in the coastal zone, changes could be coming in the interest of economic development.

Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, a strong supporter of the state’s three casinos, will bring a measure at some point that would provide aid to the gambling establishments.

“Exactly how we’re going to work it is still up in the air but the fact of the matter is the situation basically has not changed,” he said.

He proposed two bills that would have made changes, such as eliminating the table game license fee and creating capital and marketing credits for the casinos, in the past General Assembly, but neither found any success.

While he is hopeful the issue can be addressed under the new administration, the budget picture makes that unlikely.

Meanwhile, Republicans say they will remain focused on trimming the budget, such as through examining certain social programs to determine if they are worth the cost.

“We’ve continually heard from the Democrats that there’s just no more cutting left to be done,” a skeptical Sen. Simpson said.

House committee assignments were announced last week, and ones in the Senate will be made public Tuesday.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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