DOVER — Dover lawmaker Darryl Scott gets a haircut. Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, a Republican from New Castle County, takes his vehicle to the car wash. Senate Minority Leader F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, clears his computer’s desktop.
Simple tasks, but preparation nonetheless, for those legislators and 59 others ready to converge on Dover Tuesday for the second half of the 147th legislative session.
The General Assembly, during a jam-packed January to June 2013, debated socially focused issues from the death penalty and gun control to mental health and marriage equality.
Going forward, Kent lawmakers and House and Senate leaders said they expect a renewed focus on the economy, the state’s financial checks and balances system and campaign finance reform. Dealing with leftover bills from last year — such as House Bill 88, designed to keep guns from those deemed “dangerous” — could be a priority early in the session.
“I think there will be more gun bills, only two or three made it through,” Sen. Simpson said. “I think we will see House Bill 88 probably come back again.”
Coined “the mental health bill,” bipartisan-supported HB 88 would expand the reporting requirements for medical professionals in an effort to keep guns out of the hands of those individuals found to be “dangerous.” Backed by the state’s attorney general’s office and the National Rifle Association, the bill passed unanimously in the House of Representatives, but was defeated in the Senate.
“I know the attorney general was disappointed that bill didn’t pass,” Sen. Simpson said. “I think either we will see that one introduced or a new bill altogether.”
The legislation would have required medical health professionals to report to police when a mentally ill person, whether involuntarily or voluntarily committed for treatment, communicated a threat of violence against themselves or another identified person and has the capacity to carry it out. A mix of Republican and Democrat senators voted against the bill after pushback from veterans groups who were concerned that retired military officers seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome could be committed on one statement.
To reconsider the bill, a lawmaker from the majority party — Democrats control both chambers — must bring up the defeated bill in the first days of the new session. The bill is projected to be on the Senate’s agenda this week and advocates began rallying support last week.
The first month of the Delaware Legislature sets the stage for budget negotiations as it provides a first look at Gov. Jack A. Markell’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget. The governor and his administration build the budget based on reports from the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council, which meets throughout the year. The council issued its final revenue forecast for 2013 in December, revealing an increase of $5.7 million in projected revenue overall for the next fiscal year compared to September’s estimate.
“It’s been a complicated process because our revenues are generally flat, but our costs are going up,” said Ann Visalli, director of the Delaware Office of Management and Budget.
The projections show an $11.5 increase in revenue from corporate franchise and business taxes, but decreases in both the gross receipts tax and lottery revenue by $1.6 million and $3 million respectively.
Secretary Visalli said her office was not surprised by the projections — “which is a good thing.”
A key revenue challenge will be providing tax relief to casinos, who have said for several years that the state’s take in taxes is increasingly difficult given decreasing profits.
A panel of lawmakers and state officials have been studying the effect of growing neighboring competition on the state’s lottery revenue, which casino executives maintain drives the floundering financial situation.
Under current law, the state gets 43.5 percent share of all video slot machine revenue at Delaware Park, Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway. Horsemen get about 10.8 percent, and the casinos get about 40 percent. At last week’s Lottery and Gaming Study Commission meeting, Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Central Dover, suggested the panel consider revised legislation that would decrease the state’s percent by 7 percent.
The change would cost the state an estimated $25.5 million, but it would increase casino revenue by $22.1 million and the horsemen’s revenue by $3.4 million. Currently, gaming revenue is the fourth largest revenue source for the state.
In addition to the revenue concerns, officials will need to budget for hefty state programs.
Secretary Visalli said it was too early to tell which programs could be added or eliminated to fit in the current economic environment. However, she said mandatory costs such as class sizes (unit growth) in schools at $18 million and teacher and paraprofessional pay plan increases could put a strain on the budget. Costs for teachers are in the ballpark of $9 million and paraprofessional pay plan could be over $1 million.
“The number of kids going to the public schools drives the number of teachers, drives personnel in the school districts,” Secretary Visalli said. “We’ve seen pretty significant growth in enrollment. That cost came in higher than we originally anticipated.”
“Education cost increases were a big cost driver for next year.”
Though the state is seeing significant savings associated with Medicaid expansion, per the Affordable Care Act, Secretary Visalli said the state-federal partnership shifted a larger chunk of the costs to the state. Currently, Medicaid for the state costs upwards of $700 million, with $672,842,600 from the General Fund.
“In FY2015 we have to try to cover that,” she said.
State Rep. Melanie George-Smith, D-Bear, chairs the state’s Joint Finance Committee, which crafts the budget. Over the summer she led two special sessions so committee members could discuss major cost drivers such as education, Medicaid and transportation issues.
“We wanted to shine the spotlight on the possible ways that we can save Medicaid,” she said. “One of the areas is the fraud area, millions of dollars that are being wasted in fraud and there are ways to stop that.”
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Along with intense budget issues, officials are focused on jobs.
“I’m all ears for proposals,” Rep. George-Smith said. “Increasing the minimum wage, that will help people and support families with income.”
Raising the minimum wage has been a focus both locally and nationally. In Delaware, a bill to increase the $7.25 minimum wage to $8.25 was buried in a committee in May but since November, Democratic lawmakers have pushed for its consideration for a full vote in the state House of Representatives.
“Honestly I don’t think minimum wage is going to be a battle,” said rookie lawmaker Rep. Trey Paradee, D-Dover, noting the support of Reps. Andria Bennett, D-Dover, and Brian Short, D-Wilmington. “It will get out of the committee. I think it will pass easily.”
Gov. Markell is also in support of raising the minimum wage and said the Senate’s unanimous compromise — to raise the wage to $8.25 an hour — “offers the best opportunity for quick action.”
He said in a statement, “This is an issue that’s becoming increasingly important as one factor in addressing the lack of economic mobility we’ve seen for people at the bottom of the income scale. I hope we will act without delay this year.”
While representatives of the manufacturing job sector see a minimum-wage increase as a boost to the economy, small-business leaders are less convinced. Judy Diogo, president of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, said she feels that raising the minimum wage is counter-intuitive for business.
“When you increase minimum wage, whether people understand the concept or not, other expenses increase in line with that. We have a lot of additional expenses coming at businesses now,” she said, mentioning increases in workers’ compensation and health care.
“Minimum wage is for those folks starting out, it’s more for high school or college students,” Ms. Diogo said. “When you increase minimum wage, you hurt the people you are trying to help.”
An effort to revitalize manufacturing could increase jobs.
Recently, GOP lawmakers from both chambers announced a proposal to create right-to-work zones in Delaware, in an effort to boost the manufacturing sector. In 2013, 21 states and Washington introduced right-to-work bills, which state that workers cannot be forced to join or financially support a union as a condition of employment.
From 2000 to 2009, the country lost 6 million manufacturing jobs; when the recession hit Delaware, General Motors closed its Wilmington Assembly and Chrysler shuttered its Newark plant, putting thousands of residents out of work.
Sen. Lavelle said the right-to-work zones could be a door-opener to replace those jobs, and he plans to unveil legislation this month that he hopes will gain bipartisan support.
Though the economy nationally may be picking up — on Friday the December labor report showed the unemployment rate dropped to 6.7 percent — Sen. Lavelle said Delaware still needs to work to rebuild its economic base. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, the state’s gross domestic product, an indicator that gauges economic health by measuring goods and service production, only grew by 0.2 percent.
“It’s one step forward, three-quarters of a step back,” he said.
The senator has heard rumors about tax and fee programs that could drive economic development as a fix, but he said he’s not sold on those solutions.
“We have to be smarter than that,” Sen. Lavelle said. “We have to be more creative than that, we have to take more financial risks.”
While fixing the economy is on everyone’s minds, almost immediately, lawmakers will be faced with addressing a dramatic saga of sorts between Democratic Party leadership and the state treasurer’s office.
Late in the 2013 session, House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach and Senate Pro Tempore, Patricia M. Blevins, D-Elsmere penned a bill designed to clarify the role of the Cash Management Policy Board as the legal authority to make investment decisions on the state’s $2 billion cash management portfolio. Treasurer Chipman Flowers, along with several members appointed by the governor, serves on the panel.
“All the problems revolved around Treasurer Flowers. The bottom line is they weren’t working together,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.
Legislators did not discuss the bill on June 30, the last day of the legislation session, and the parties didn’t reach a compromise.
“We felt that we needed to clarify this and get past the egos at the door and just work it out,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said, noting some legislators were unhappy with the treasurer’s conduct at meetings and in the financial arena.
He said treasurer candidates are not required to have a financial background, which could be detrimental to financial decisions.
“It is ludicrous to think that our legislature would want someone who is popular with the folks and with the citizens,” he said, potentially instead of someone who is experienced in financial management .
Mr. Flowers is president and managing member of the Flowers Counsel Group LLC, a law firm he founded in 2006 that specializes in business law.
“I am not going to run away from this fight,” Mr. Flowers said. “This is a perfect example of corruption to this core.”
“They can try to make up all the lies they want, but I am going to stand for what’s right.”
He said it was clear the leadership would like to have another candidate running for treasurer in the 2014 midterm elections.
In fact, Sean Barney, a former policymaker for Gov. Markell, is challenging Mr. Flowers in the primary.
“I believe in public service,” Mr. Barney said in a statement. “I am honored by the people who have encouraged me to run for treasurer, an important office where the responsibility to uphold a higher standard of trust is paramount. The fact that I have stepped down as policy director is a reflection of the seriousness with which I take that encouragement.”
Regardless of the competition, Mr. Flowers said it will not distract him from managing the treasury.
“I don’t want to be bought,” he said.
In the works
As the legislative session progresses, lawmakers will be eyeing midterm election campaigns. All the representatives and 17 senators are up for re-election.
Sen. Simpson said the election could impact the climate of the session.
“I don’t think you would have seen the social issues that were passed last year if we were in an election year,” he said, referring to marriage equality and gender identity legislation. “It has a great effect on how legislators vote, but it shouldn’t. We should be voting our conscious and the will of our constituents any year.”
In particular, Sen. Simpson said he feels that the death penalty repeal bill, which passed by a 11-10 vote in the Senate, will not be worked in the House. The repeal legislation is currently tied up in a committee.
“It’s a very controversial issue — I think people have pretty much made up their minds on how they are going to vote,” he said.
Rep. Schwartkopf echoed similar sentiments. “I would prefer that it not come up this year. I think the supporters of the bill should sit back and see who gets elected. We always have a surprise in the elections,” he said.
With the election season, there have been rumors of increased campaign finance reform. In December, the state updated its campaign finance tracking website, but it has been plagued by glitches. As such, the campaign filing deadline was extended to Feb. 20.
There’s been additional focus on reform since former Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey released a 101-page study that analyzed Delaware’s campaign finance laws in the wake of former New Castle liquor executive Christopher J. Tigani’s federal election violations after two years of internal investigations specifically looking at illegal campaign donations to Gov. Markell’s 2008 campaign.
“Personally I don’t think the Veasey report proved anything other than what we already knew,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.
While he favors enforcing campaign violations, he said he would like major changes within the elections department.
“There needs to be a whole revamping in the elections department,” he said. “The commissioner should be responsible and should have more control.
“I think the game plan is to go back and feel out caucuses and leadership and the governor’s office and get together.”
The 2014 legislative session will convene Tuesday at 2 p.m. at Legislative Hall in Dover
Staff writer Jen Rini can be reached at 741-8250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @DSNJen_Rini on Twitter.