Senate votes to repeal lodging tax authorization, expand absentee voting

DOVER — A lodging tax that was authorized for Kent County last year but never implemented took a step toward being repealed Thursday.

By a 21-0 vote, senators passed legislation that would remove from Levy Court the authority to put a tax on hotels and motels of up to 3 percent. That authorization came from a bill passed at the end of session last year that proceeded to generate far more controversy than expected, leading the main sponsor of the original measure to pull it back.

In large part because the measure directs the proceeds to the DE Turf sports complex in Frederica rather than the county government, many people argued the tax was unfair.

The proposal approved in 2019 directed the county to give the tax collections to the complex “to remain competitive by advertising, promoting, and providing incentives for use of the facility, to establish a program to benefit youth by providing to youth organizations and scholastic institutions the opportunity to use its facility at reduced cost, and to maintain, improve, and support the facility through the payment of costs, expenses, and associated debt.”

Supporters of DE Turf said the estimated $950,000 in collections would be necessary to attract premier tournaments to the county by offering five- or six-figure “bid fees.” The complex, which opened in the spring of 2017 after years of planning, saw 102,000 visitors who generated an economic impact of around $31 million in 2018, per DE Turf officials.

Sen. Trey Paradee, a Dover Democrat who sponsored the original bill at the request of DE Turf officials, was also criticized because his brother, John, was on the board of directors for the complex. John Paradee resigned from the board in November, citing a “patently false and recklessly irresponsible narrative.”

Sen. Paradee has maintained he was unaware his brother was involved with the nonprofit and fought back against claims the measure was intended in part to benefit his family. He said he only sponsored it after an attempt by Sen. Colin Bonini, a Republican representing the Dover area, to put the lodging tax language in the capital bond bill failed and was told by officials from the sports complex the measure had support from Levy Court.

“I should have said ‘No, sorry you’re going to have to wait six months,’ but I was led to believe the legislation had the overwhelming support of Kent County Levy Court, that it was something they really wanted, and I wanted to help my friends who subsequently left me out in the cold,” Sen. Paradee said Thursday.

Sen. Bonini also defended his colleague Thursday, calling the idea of Sen. Paradee trying to explicitly benefit his brother “absurd.”

If Levy Court wants the tax, commissioners can request it with a formal resolution, Sen. Paradee said.

County administrator Mike Petit de Mange said Wednesday he’s unaware of any plans to seek the tax if it is repealed.

Voting measures

Senators also approved a bill that would allow no-excuse absentee voting after the measure previously failed at the end of session in 2019.

Currently, voters can only legally obtain an absentee ballot if they will be unable to make it to their polling place for a few specific reasons, such as work obligations. While there’s nothing to stop individuals from falsely claiming one of the valid reasons is applicable, some lawmakers feel they should do everything they can to make voting more accessible.

House Bill 73 would strike a few lines from state law and add a sentence instructing the legislature to “enact general laws providing the circumstances, rules, and procedures by which registered voters may vote by absentee ballot.”

The measure, the first leg of a constitutional amendment, passed the House 38-3 in April but fell short of the necessary two-thirds threshold in the Senate just after midnight on July 1 before the chamber gaveled out for the year.

This time around, Democrats were able to flip Sen. Ernie Lopez. With support from the Lewes Republican and Sen. Cathy Cloutier, a Republican from the Arden area who backed the bill on the first go-around, supporters had the requisite 14 votes.

Opponents expressed wariness about the possibility of lawmakers in the future imposing stricter guidelines, essentially preventing some Delawareans from voting.

“It’s not really a question of whether we should make it easier for people to vote,” Sen. Anthony Delcollo, a Marshallton Republican, said.

Sen. Bryant Richardson, a Republican from Seaford, pointed out legislators approved early voting last year, enabling individuals to cast ballots at least 10 days before an election.

Gov. John Carney supports the measure, although as a constitutional amendment it must pass again in either 2021 or 2022.

Not debated Thursday was a bill to move the state’s primary election from September to April. Although Delaware holds its presidential primary at the end of April, its primary for state and local offices is more than four months later.

The attempt to alter the election date has passed the House three times in the past four years but failed to find success in the Senate, much to the irritation of some representatives.

The measure was added to the Senate agenda Wednesday night. Initially, the measure kept the effective date of Jan. 1, 2020, meaning it would move this year’s primary with only three months’ notice.

Coincidentally, President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat who sets the Senate agenda, received a primary opponent last week.

He later added an amendment to the bill Wednesday pushing the effective date back from this year to 2024.

After holding their closed-door caucus meeting Thursday afternoon, senators did not vote on the bill. According to Majority Leader Nicole Poore, a New Castle Democrat, lawmakers decided to wait on the measure given it wouldn’t take effect for four years.

“At this point, the caucus just said, ‘You know what, if we’re not doing it now, then there’s no reason to rush it,’” Sen. Poore said, although she wouldn’t rule out voting on it at some point this year.