Senate OKs bill creating commission to draw new legislative districts

DOVER — The Senate on Wednesday approved a bill ordering independent redistricting of the state’s legislative districts.

The proposal received 12 votes in support and seven against, with one member not voting and one absent.The measure now goes to the House.

Senate Bill 27 would create an independent nine-member commission to redraw legislative district lines every 10 years.

The process is currently overseen by the General Assembly, which critics say can lead to gerrymandering.

The commission would give at least three political parties representation and allow members of the public to serve. Applicants would initially be selected by a panel of judges, with the secretary of state then randomly choosing nine names.

Commission members would be barred from running for office in the following election and from lobbying with the General Assembly or Congress for five years.

Supporters say the measure will largely remove politics from the redistricting process, preventing lawmakers from drawing themselves safer districts or fitting several members of the minority party into one district.

The idea of independent redistricting, main sponsor Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark said, is “a fundamental part of our democratic system.”

But Republicans raised objections.

“If you think this … isn’t going to be dramatically more politicized than bills filed by people who are elected to be here, than you are stunningly naive,” said Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover.

Opponents also protested handing power to a non-elected panel.

“We were hired to do a job and we’ve passed it off in so many different ways,” said Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel. “That, I think, is wrong.”

Other bills

The House Revenue & Finance Committee released to the House floor a bill creating two new top income tax brackets and limiting itemized deductions for top earners.

House Bill 109 would lower the tax rates by 0.05 percent for the current brackets and establish new brackets of $125,000 and $250,000. They would be taxed at 7.05 and 7.8 percent, respectively.

Delaware’s top tax bracket is $60,000, which is taxed at 6.6 percent.

“When it’s time to pay the piper, you have to make the hard decisions,” main sponsor Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, said.

He has been critical of Gov. John Carney’s proposal, which would raise tax rates for each of the seven existing brackets and would not create a higher level.

While noting his measure is “not intended to be a panacea,” Rep. Kowalko said it would set up a more reliable revenue source for state government.

The Delaware Chamber of Commerce spoke against the bill, speculating it would not produce much money and could drive people to move from the state.

The bill was sent to the House without any Republican votes.

• The Senate Elections & Government Affairs Committee heard from Sen. Townsend on two bills that are aimed at increasing so-called transparency in the election process.

One proposal would require donors to political campaigns disclose their employer, and the other would mandate candidates for president and vice president release their tax returns to gain ballot access in Delaware.

Contributors to federal campaigns already must provide the names of their employers. Supporters claim bringing the stipulation to the state would offer a clearer look at candidates’ support.

“It’s better to our democracy to be able to see if certain industries are supporting candidates or propping up our entire political system,” Sen. Townsend said.

In a 2013 report, former Chief Justice Norman Veasey recommended the state adopt federal standards for disclosure.

Several senators raised concerns in the committee. Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, expressed a worry the bill “could have a chilling effect on the willingness of people to exercise … their First Amendment rights with regard to campaign contributions.”

Sen. Townsend admitted the proposal may make some would-be donors hesitant but said they can donate less than $100, the threshold for disclosure of individual donor names.

His bill requiring presidential candidates make public their tax returns comes as a result of the 2016 campaign where President Trump refused to release his tax information.

Lawmakers in several states have since proposed legislation that would force candidates to turn over tax documents. New Jersey’s Legislature recently passed a bill to that end.

• After an attempt to establish paid family leave to state government employees was unsuccessful in the prior General Assembly, lawmakers filed another version of the bill Wednesday.

The measure would give full-time state employees 12 weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave within one year of the birth of a child or adoption of a child younger than 6 years old.

“No parent should have to make a financial decision to leave their child just a couple weeks after they have been brought into the family,” Rep. Debra Heffernan, D-Bellefonte, said in a statement. “It’s hypocritical for us as a state to stress the importance of the family unit and then not back it up with this kind of basic and essential support system.”

Employees would have to be employed by the state government at least a year before the birth or adoption for the policy to take effect.

The bill is primarily backed by Democrats but has some Republican support as well.

A version filed in 2015 stalled because of the estimated price tag of nearly $1.9 million annually.

Three states currently provide paid parental leave to government employees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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