Markell promises to be proactive in final legislative session

DOVER — After seven years in office, Gov. Jack Markell enters his final legislative session unconcerned about his legacy. The second leg of the 148th General Assembly kicks off today, and while 2016 may not quite be business as usual for the term-limited Democrat, Gov. Markell plans to push many of the same priorities he has held for years.

“I will continue to focus on the things that I believe are most important when it comes to making Delaware more prosperous in the future,” he said Monday.

His tenure thus far can be defined by many things, but some of the ones the governor is quick to point to are developing the state’s workforce, shining a spotlight on education and making Delaware more business-friendly.

Gov. Jack Markell

Gov. Jack Markell

He does plan to unveil some new goals in the State of the State on Jan. 21 but shied away from discussing them Monday.

“I don’t want to steal my own thunder,” he said.

One of the points of pride for the governor is Pathways to Prosperity, an initiative started in 2014 that aims to provide students with specialized job training in fields ranging from health care to computer science to hospitality. The state announced in November the program was expanding from 15 high schools to 29, serving more than 5,000 students.

“When we have employers telling us that they want to hire but they don’t necessarily find people with the necessary skills, that’s a signal to us that we’ve got work to do,” Gov. Markell said.

He also singled out a bill that will revamp the state’s corporate income tax. Introduced Friday with bipartisan support, the proposal would base the tax solely on the percentage of sales in Delaware rather than its sales, payroll and holdings in the state relative to its nationwide operations.

The state would see a monetary hit in the first few years of the change, but supporters believe the bill would make Delaware a better business environment and its tax code fairer.

Opt out challenge

Not all of the focus will be fiscal in nature. On Thursday, lawmakers plan to attempt a veto override for the first time in 39 years, a direct challenge to the governor’s priorities. At issue is a bill allowing parents to opt their children out of standardized tests.

Passed in the spring after heated debate, and against the wishes of the administration, the bill was vetoed in July.

General Assembly for Page 1 by . Gov. Markell, who has spoken on the issue to some lawmakers directly as the session approaches, said he remains opposed to the legislation. He declined to predict the chances the bill gains the needed three-fifths support in both chambers to pass again.

He noted one concern comes from civil rights proponents, who have said codifying opt-out could marginalize low-income parents, a group that often struggles to stay up to date with school happenings due to a lack of resources and opportunities.

Some lawmakers have speculated Gov. Markell may push a water tax or an increase in the gas tax, two gubernatorial initiatives that died early deaths in 2014. However, he shot down those ideas, saying “I don’t anticipate that at top of my list.”

Criminal justice

One thing Delaware’s chief executive will support is continued criminal justice reform, an issue the state has examined closely in the past few years.

“The ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ approach hasn’t always been successful,” Gov. Markell said.

He believes the state needs to make a “smarter” investment in criminal justice, such as through efforts to rehabilitate rather than punish, especially for those sentenced for more minor crimes.

In May, Gov. Markell publicly supported death penalty repeal for the first time, an issue upon which he previously had been noncommittal. The bill failed to get out of committee in the House last year, but the prime sponsor plans to suspend the rules at some point in an effort to bring it to the floor.

Gov. Markell did not comment on whether he might support that plan but said his view remains unchanged.

While the State of the State contains many priorities, and highlights what the administration views as its top accomplishments, it’s the budget unveiling one week later that in many ways really provides a detailed look at potential changes.

The budget mostly is finished, the governor said, declining to share details in advance. Delaware was facing a deficit in the range of $180 million before updated projections last month brought it down precipitously.

While Gov. Markell may have barely more than 365 days left in office, he said he is focused not on what lies beyond but on that remaining time.

“My job every day — this has been true from day one — is to do everything I can so that Delaware is more prosperous in the future than it would have been otherwise,” he said.

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