LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Holding Delaware accountable to Farmland Preservation Program

A bill I sponsored to protect Delaware’s Farmland Preservation Program money from being raided was recently defeated in the House of Representatives.

House Bill 124 would have ensured that the program — which purchases the permanent development rights of farmland at a steep discount — received the money it was promised more than a decade ago.

Under existing law (Title 30, Section 5426), the Farmland Preservation Fund is
supposed to get the first $10 million from the state’s annual share of the Realty Transfer Tax revenue. That law was enacted in 2005.

According to the Delaware Division of Revenue, the Realty Transfer Tax added $73.6 million to the state’s coffers in 2015. The issue is not one of availability, but protection.

Delaware law prevents one General Assembly from binding the actions of lawmakers in a future General Assembly short of amending the state constitution. Because the farmland preservation funding law is not part of the state constitution, its money is vulnerable to being raided.

Rep. David Wilson

Rep. David Wilson

The lawmakers that enacted the law in 2005 knew this. However, they thought the clear statement of legislative intent embodied in the law, combined with the negative attention of violating it, would be sufficient to keep future lawmakers and governors honest.

That was the case for the first few years, but not much since then. For the sixth year in a row, Gov. Markell’s proposed budget seeks to take most of the program’s money for other uses. In the budget that would take effect July 1, Gov. Markell suggested only $3 million for the program.

State government should not be ignoring the law just because it can. The General Assembly expects others to obey the laws it enacts, and legislators should be demanding no less of themselves. Is it any wonder people do not trust government when it so easily breaks the promises it makes to its citizens?

Aside from the ethical argument of honoring a commitment, there is a very practical point to be made about the need for a stable, predictable source of funding for farmland preservation.

I recently saw a comment posted on a downstate blog that said agriculture was not the future of Sussex County.

I disagree. Farming is essential to our present and future, not only in Sussex County, but our entire state.

Agriculture is Delaware’s leading industry. It accounts for approximately $1.5 billion in annual sales and employs thousands of Delawareans. Farms comprise nearly 500,000 acres, or about 40 percent of our landmass.

However, Delaware’s farm acreage has dropped every year.

Maintaining a critical mass of agricultural land is essential to supporting needed farm services and preventing conflicts with encroaching residential development.

The Farmland Preservation Program is designed to maintain blocks of agricultural land through the coordinated purchase of permanent development rights in a competitive process requiring landowners to offer steep discounts. In recent years, this has worked so well, the state has acquired these rights for about a third of their market value — permanently preserving farmland and open space while keeping this land in active production.

Additionally, farmers are not pocketing this money. Studies show that the overwhelming majority of it is being plowed back into their operations, increasing the vitality of the industry and sparking economic activity.

Some people have questioned why I would vote for a Bond Bill that did not include the full funding to which I believe the preservation program is entitled. Despite my strong beliefs regarding the program, I would not selfishly jeopardize funding for roads, libraries, schools and many other vital projects which are also contained in the Bond Bill.

Last year, I successfully fought to get partial funding for farmland preservation when some of my colleagues favored not appropriating anything. Ideally, I would have liked to have seen the program receive the full $10 million it was promised, but I’m certain the $3 million I restored was greater than zero.

While the recent 20-to-17 vote on my constitutional amendment to guarantee farmland preservation funding fell short of the 28 votes it needed to pass in the House, I will not stop advocating for this issue.

Next year, if I am fortunate enough to return in the 149th General Assembly, I will reintroduce my bill and continue my fight to help family farms and support an industry to which so many Delawareans owe their livelihoods.

State Rep. David L. Wilson
R-District 35 (northwest and north-central Sussex County, including Bridgeville, Greenwood and part of Georgetown)
Lincoln

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