DOVER — The second leg of the 148th General Assembly begins Tuesday and lawmakers expect it to be a busy one.
The 2015 session saw marijuana decriminalization, a fierce standardized test debate, and infrastructure negotiations that were not concluded until the final day with a budget hole that had to be filled.
What’s on tap for 2016? Some new issues but also a whole lot of the same.
President Pro Tempore Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, predicts it will be a very busy year. The General Assembly ended the 2015 session in a flurry, and with a host of impactful bills on the table, it could start this year the same way.
It all starts with creating a balanced budget, the only duty lawmakers are, as Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf is fond of pointing out, constitutionally required to fulfill.
For several months following September’s official revenue projections, lawmakers and top state officials were cautious about the prospect of a projected deficit in the range of $180 million. December’s projections, however, showed a $164 million increase spread out over two years
“It showed new money coming in and it also made us all optimistic that we were going to see a revamp of the economy,” Sen. Blevins said.
But despite the good news and increased confidence, nearly six months remain before the fiscal year ends. House Democratic leadership cautioned after the forecast that lawmakers cannot simply “declare victory,” and Minority Leader Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, compared depending on revenue projections to playing the lottery.
There is still plenty of time for changes in the forecast, and that, coupled with the obvious importance of the budget, means leading legislators predict finances will remain priority No. 1.
“From my perspective everything circles around and depends on the budget,” said Rep. Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach.
While raising taxes was discussed in June, and Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, introduced three bills to do just that shortly before the end of the session, lawmakers said last week there is not much momentum — although some Republicans remain cautious.
Minority Leader Sen. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, predicted some lawmakers may make attempt to raise revenue through taxes, particularly with Gov. Jack Markell in his final year in office. The governor, a Democrat, could push for higher taxes without fear of personal political reprisal, Sen. Simpson speculated.
Sen. Blevins takes an opposing stance, citing difficult negotiations between the caucuses last year to find consensus on higher Division of Motor Vehicles fees.
The efforts last year to raise money for infrastructure work dragged on throughout the entire session before finally being settled in the last hours.
Whatever support there may be for raising taxes overall, it is limited at this stage, lawmakers said, especially with the prospect of several more revenue projections upcoming. Should revenue continue to rise, legislators could turn to minor cuts and re-allocations to balance the budget.
Even if a deficit is avoided, however, Sen. Blevins said it is doubtful many programs could be added on top of the current services.
Further spending reform figures to be a major topic for Republicans, particularly the hardliners who are adamant cuts can be made.
Generally, Delaware Republicans often argue government is bloated and not as efficient as it could. In contrast, Democrats believe very few of the initiatives funded by the state are non-essential.
The administration has often tried to refute claims of an overly large government by mentioning that, when adjusted for inflation, the budget has actually decreased slightly under Gov. Markell.
In March, Senate Republicans sent a letter to the governor supporting a 5 percent cut. Gov. Markell responded that supporting reductions without proposing specific ones is “passing the buck.”
“Everybody wants to cut but nobody wants to cut something they’re interested in,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.
An increase in the gas tax, proposed by Gov. Markell in 2014 and soundly rejected only to be brought up again in 2015, could be discussed this year. Rep. Schwartzkopf, for one, believes the tax would generally not have a large impact on Delawareans, although he is skeptical about the number of votes such a proposal would get.
Republicans, many of whom represent more rural districts, will continue to promote efforts to lock in funding for the state’s farmland preservation program. The program has received less than the recommended sum several years in a row.
DuPont and business growth
A wild card in the budget deliberations is DuPont. The chemical giant, a Delaware icon, announced last month it plans to merge with Dow Chemical Company, lay off 1,700 workers and shift part of the new company out of state.
“If the structure changes drastically who knows what effect that might have on our revenue picture?” Sen. Simpson said.
It’s clear, though, the impact would not be positive in the long term.
Some lawmakers also see the merger as a sign the state needs to revamp many of its laws.
Rep. Short believes Delaware should impose right-to-work laws in at least limited capacity, a view shared by his counterpart in the Senate.
The state is losing out despite a good location and a talented workforce because it does not have right-to-work laws, Sen. Simpson said. Two right-to-work bills were introduced, unsuccessfully, last year.
“Just to take a hard stance that it’s not going to work and close your eyes to that issue, I think it’s not fair and not being able to compete,” Rep. Short said.
Republicans also plan to call for further prevailing wage reform. As part of a compromise to support higher DMV fees, the minority caucuses negotiated for increases in the prevailing wage thresholds last spring. For new construction, prevailing wages will now be paid for state projects costing more than $500,000, as opposed to $100,000, while the figure for repairs and renovations was tripled to $45,000.
Another business-related proposal will come from the Democratic side. Sen. Robert Marshall has introduced legislation to increase the minimum wage from $8.25 to $15.05 by 2023. Business organizations are in opposition and several lawmakers said they do not believe it will pass.
Lawmakers could also push a pay raise for state employees, though doing so would necessitate cuts or increased revenue elsewhere.
Following a year that saw marijuana decriminalized and a bill to repeal the death penalty fail in committee, the second leg of the session figures to host several contentious topics unrelated to finances, some of which will simply be picked up from last year.
The most immediate one will likely be a bill to allow parents to opt their children out of certain tests.
Introduced with a specific focus on the Smarter Balanced Assessment, it was later expanded to all standardized tests. Passed after much debate, the bill was rejected over the summer by Gov. Markell, marking a relatively rare use of his veto power.
Rep. Kowalko said he will pursue plans to overturn the veto Thursday, the first veto override attempt in the legislature since 1977. Gov. Markell has contacted lawmakers about the override, seeking to prevent the effort from gaining the needed 60 percent.
The Department of Education has cautioned the state could lose federal funding if enough students are opted out of the Smarter Balanced test.
Although Rep. Kowalko believes the vote “ought to be unanimous,” other lawmakers are much less certain as to the outcome. Some lawmakers who originally supported the bill will vote against the override, particularly with a new education chief in place.
Secretary of Education Mark Murphy stepped down in September after waves of criticism. He was replaced by Steven Godowsky, a highly regarded former superintendent of the New Castle County Vo-Tech School District.
Sen. Blevins believes Mr. Godowsky, who has promised to be more accessible, will be a “change agent.”
“He brings a better attitude to the table, let’s put it that way, on working together with the legislators to solve problems,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.
Other education issues, such as the Wilmington priority schools, will likely be prominent as well over the next six months.
Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, plans to try and suspend the rules in an effort to bring the death penalty repeal bill out of committee and to the House floor. He has not set an exact date for the action, a move that has little precedent.
Gun control could also be discussed this year. Delaware placed several restrictions on firearms in 2013, but with President Barack Obama calling for nationwide changes, state lawmakers could make efforts to increase limitations.
Attorney General Matt Denn announced several initiatives in the summer and fall he hoped to see become law, including forthcoming bills to reduce mandatory minimum sentences, increase punishments for certain gun possession violations and expand drug treatment.
Elections and a farewell
2016 is an election year, and a particularly busy one at that. Not only are the White House and governor’s mansion open, but Sen. Blevins, a 25-year veteran of the Senate, said she has never seen so many people running for office. In addition to the 41 House seats and 11 Senate seats up for grabs, four other senators are seeking new positions.
Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, is running for the U.S. House of Representatives, Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, D-Middletown, is seeking the lieutenant governor’s post, Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, is campaigning for governor and Sen. Marshall has announced a Wilmington mayoral run. Couple them with Rep. Bryon Short, D-Arden, who is giving up his seat to run for the U.S. House, and five current lawmakers could be gone from the legislature after November’s election.
That, Rep. Danny Short said, could lead to a domino effect, where several members of the House run for Senate seats in a 2017 special election, in turn opening up new seats.
Conventional wisdom holds legislators could be less likely to raise taxes or make other drastic changes in an election year, but Rep. Schwartzkopf said he does not believe that is the case.
One of the main takeaways from the first leg of the session was the disagreement between the parties. The infrastructure negotiations took six months, and lawmakers of different parties were unable to reach a consensus on new taxes.
This year, there is optimism consensus will be reached more easily.
“I know to a person nobody wants to go through” a repeat of 2015, Rep. Schwartzkopf said.
2016 marks the final year of Gov. Markell’s tenure, one that has been characterized by challenging economic times. The governor’s State of the State Jan. 21 will provide an indication of his priorities in his legislative session, with his recommended budget set to be unveiled one week later.
Leading legislators do not expect big changes, either from the legislative or executive branches, although Sen. Blevins cautioned “there may be more disagreements” between the two sides due to Gov. Markell’s status as a lame duck.
Activity in Legislative Hall has been increasing with session rapidly approaching. Come Tuesday, the building will be buzzing once more in a way it has not since June.
“It’s kind of like going back to school,” Rep. Short said with a laugh.