Legislative Luncheon centers on taxes, government mandates

 

Rep. Lyndon Yearick speaks during panel discussion during the 16th Annual Legislative Luncheon at the Rollins Center in Dover on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — For those who have been to the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce Legislative Luncheon more than once, Thursday offered little that was surprising, although it did indicate what businesses in Kent County are concerned about.

Predictably, the crowd was cold to tax increases and a higher minimum wage and applauded calls for right-to-work. The audience was made up mostly of representatives of local companies, and the five Republican lawmakers in attendance drew enthusiastic responses from attendees, while the reaction to the two Democratic legislators was more mixed.

The annual event features a brief speech by the governor, followed by chamber members posing a handful of questions to a panel of lawmakers.

Gov. John Carney touted his administration’s budget plan and the state’s economic development strategy, which has seen the Delaware Economic Development Office reformed into a public-private partnership and a division in the Department of State.

The most important way a state can attract and grow businesses is by having a skilled and well-trained workforce, he said.

The governor, a dedicated Philadelphia Eagles fan, could not resist reminiscing about the team’s Super Bowl win last month and leading the crowd in a chorus of the Eagles fight song — prompting Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, himself a big supporter of the team, to joke that he had planned to call on the audience to sing the fight song.

After the governor addressed the crowd of 250 or so, attendees posed six pre-selected questions to legislators.

None of the seven legislators voiced support for a bill that would create a new fee used to fund projects aimed at cleaning up Delaware’s waterways. The measure is not expected to pass.

Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Camden, expressed concerns it would set a precedent for developing more trust funds aimed at one specific area, leading to Delawareans paying much more in taxes.

Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, agreed.

“We don’t need more taxes. We need control of spending and getting our budget in line and then we can govern the other way,” he said. “Why do we need more taxes when we’re not doing what’s right by you now?”

Answering a question that seems to pop up every year, Republicans agreed the minimum wage should not be raised, arguing a higher minimum wage would drive costs up, forcing companies out of business and leaving low-level workers in a worse position.

As he has for several years, Rep. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold, went against the crowd, stating the minimum wage should grow with inflation. He did note he would consider establishing a training wage or setting the minimum wage lower for teenagers.

Rep. Paradee added he would not support any increase until Delaware’s casinos receive financial relief from the state, prompting a roar of approval from the crowd.

Members of the GOP, who are in a minority in the General Assembly, spoke in favor of right-to-work laws, which prevent individuals from being forced to join a union or pay dues a condition of employment. Right-to-work is a highly polarized issue, and recent efforts by Republican legislators to bring right-to-work zones in Delaware have gone nowhere. Sussex County Council voted down a proposal to make the county a right-to-work locale in January, citing fears of an expensive lawsuit from the state.

Seaford Town Council approved a similar ordinance in December. The legal status of that is unknown and likely will remain so unless the state opts to challenge it in court.

Opponents often say right-to-work could lead to a shift in the employer-employee relationship, while supporters argue it creates jobs.

Rep. Spiegelman, R-Clayton, said right-to-work could help the state attract businesses, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

“One of the things we commonly hear is that a right-to-work zone in Seaford is a union-busting bill, that you’re just trying to eliminate union jobs,” he said. “No, there are no jobs. There’s no jobs that are union jobs or otherwise. The whole point of a right-to-work zone is to allow this area the right to have a business there that they don’t have to, through compulsion of law, unionize.”

But the two Democrats in attendance, Rep. Paradee and Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, disagreed.

“It allows workers who are not paying their dues who are able to take advantage of the benefits that are bargained for on their behalf, it allows them to take advantage of them,” Rep. Paradee said. “And let’s call it what it really is: It is a tactic to break up unions. I mean, that’s how it’s been used.”

A new topic broached this year was marijuana, in response to a bill filed last March that would legalize cannabis.

Six of the seven legislators expressed opposition to the bill, although Rep. Spiegelman said he sees pros to legalization but thinks the bill does not provide enough protections for businesses and has an “atrocious” tax structure.

Rep. Paradee said he had issues with the way the bill is worded too, although he is a co-sponsor. A task force looking at concerns relating to cannabis can help resolve many problems, he said, while describing legalization as “inevitable.”

All of these topics are things the General Assembly will consider when lawmakers return Tuesday, although the likelihood of the proposals discussed Thursday becoming law ranges from slim to none.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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