Jobs, schools, gun laws: Carney spotlights successes, teases toward future in State of the State address

Gov. John Carney smiles as he delivers his 2020 State of the State address Thursday in the House chamber at Legislative Hall. Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller

DOVER — Gov. John Carney’s State of the State address Thursday centered on what he sees as his administration’s past successes, highlighting efforts to boost economic development, improve Delaware’s education system and protect the environment, among others.

Delivering his fourth formal address to the General Assembly, the governor also urged lawmakers to support several gun control measures, continue investing in the state’s infrastructure and schools and back legislation providing free college tuition for children in foster care.

“I’m pleased to report that the state of our state is strong and getting stronger,” he said in prepared remarks.

Gov. Carney spoke for almost 40 minutes, rarely deviating from his written speech, although with plenty of breaks for applause.

The State of the State is generally a way for the chief executive not just to point to what he or she sees as the biggest achievements but to offer a preview of his or her budget recommendations, which are released the following Thursday. In short, the address not only presents the governor with an opportunity to use his or her bully pulpit, it is also one of the best ways to share an agenda with the public.

To some, including House Minority Leader Danny Short, a Seaford Republican, Thursday’s remarks had the “ring” of a campaign speech — perhaps fitting given Gov. Carney is seeking reelection in November.

For him, the State of the State is generally a tease of the governor’s budget proposal.

“That’s the footnote to what a lot of things that he talked to today,” Rep. Short said. “I view this more as a ceremonial aspect, kind of things that are traditionally done, but the meat of the subject and the real work starts next week.”

Several of the initiatives mentioned in the State of the State were revealed earlier this week: $50 million to work on cleaning up the state’s water and another $50 million to build a new school in Wilmington. Others, like planting 1 million trees over the next 10 years, are new.

First lady Tracey Quillen Carney is escorted into the House chamber by Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock.

Few of the items discussed in the speech are controversial, with calls to outlaw untraceable “ghost guns” and high-capacity magazines as notable exceptions.

Both of those bills are currently in the legislature, along with measures to ban “assault weapons” and mandate a permit to purchase a firearm. The fact Gov. Carney cited only two of the measures could be an indication he views the assault weapons and permit bills as nonstarters, according to House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Democrat from Rehoboth Beach.

The governor’s biggest emphasis through his first three years has been growing the economy and creating jobs, a theme that shined through Thursday.

“Today, I have good news to report. Compared to when I took office, 20,000 more people go to work every day in Delaware,” he said. “In fact, more Delawareans are working than at any point in our state’s history.

“And with a strong economy, it’s the right time for us to invest in our future. More than half of Delawareans working are employed at small businesses. They’re the engine of our economic growth.”

Delaware’s unemployment rate for November was an estimated 3.8 percent, up from 3.2 percent in June. It was 4.6 percent when the governor took office in January 2017.

The Delaware Prosperity Partnership, a public-private partnership that replaced the Delaware Economic Development Office in 2017, is responsible for helping bring more than 1,000 new jobs to the state and for keeping another 1,000-plus positions here, according to the governor.

Investments in infrastructure, ranging from roads to high-speed internet, have helped business growth, he said, pointing to internet projects in both Kent and Sussex counties. Gov. Carney also noted the state last year unveiled a centralized website, called OneStop, to help small businesses get licensed, an initiative he thinks can be greatly expanded.

“We should also make it easier for everyday Delawareans to interact with their state government. We need a OneStop for Delaware citizens — where you can buy your park pass, register to vote, renew your license or check for snow closures,” he said.

“I’ve asked our chief information officer, James Collins, to lead a new effort to connect state government with Delawareans through technology. This will be a game changer for our state.”

The governor has also made education one of his key priorities, especially after several advocacy groups sued the state two years ago, alleging its method of funding schools is unconstitutional because it deprives needy populations of extra resources.

By July 1, 2022, the state will have committed $75 million over the previous three years to help students who come from impoverished areas or don’t speak English as a native language and to give elementary schoolers more mental health and reading support.

Districts have some flexibility on how to spend that funding, although plans must be approved by the Department of Education.
Graduation rates for low-income students and English language learners are at a 10-year high, the governor said.

Michael Berry, adjutant general of the Delaware National Guard, enters the House chamber.

A new initiative set to be unveiled in legislation would enable children who age out of foster care to enroll for free at the University of Delaware, Delaware State University or Delaware Technical Community College. Another has the state partnering with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to provide participating children a free book every month up to age 5.

Rep. Schwartzkopf praised the education initiatives spotlighted in the speech, expressing hope the state can stave off the lawsuit and improve educational outcomes on its own. He is a big supporter of the $50 million for clean water, describing it as desperately needed, especially in Sussex County.

Pointing to the $50 million for a new Wilmington school, Rep. Short, meanwhile, noted other districts have large populations of needy students and could benefit from more funding. Indian River, for instance, had two referendums fail last year, with a third scheduled for next month.

Just two weeks after Gov. Carney took office, an inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center killed one correctional officer and thrust the prison system’s long-running problems into the spotlight. In the wake of that incident, the state has raised pay for correctional officers and is seeking to change the culture in Delaware’s jails. Reducing recidivism is one of the main goals set by the governor and correctional officials.

Gov. John Carney is greeted before giving his State of the State address.

“This year, all inmates sentenced to more than a year in custody get individualized plans as soon as they enter prison,” the governor said Thursday. “The plans focus on drug treatment, education and job skills. It’s in everyone’s interest that these individuals leave prison better off than when they entered.”

Unlike his prior two State of the States, Gov. Carney did not call for a pay raise for state workers Thursday. He did note more than 40 percent of pension-eligible employees will qualify for retirement over the next five years, speaking of the need “to recruit a new generation of public servants into state government.”

Gov. Carney, who served as secretary of finance in the late 1990s and campaigned in part on revamping the state’s budgeting process, noted he entered office with a $400 million gap between projected revenues and spending. Today, the state has an extra $200 million for the fiscal year starting July 1, not counting $126 million set aside by lawmakers for future budget crunches.

His budget recommendations, he said Thursday, will once again focus on one-time projects, mostly capital-related, rather than growing the operating budget with ongoing programs. Gov. Carney said he also intends to propose a capital bond bill that surpasses the current year’s $863 million allocation, already the largest in state history.