After three years of proposing measures to deal with slow state revenue growth, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner acknowledged the economic recovery in her recent State of the State Address by calling for spending millions of dollars on new state programs.
One new program proposed by the governor would recruit teachers to the state by paying for their college education in exchange for their service in Delaware classrooms. Another education proposal calls for the establishment of full-day kindergarten in all Delaware public schools by 2008.
State Rep. Joe DiPinto, co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, applauded the governor's call for 68 new reading specialists.
"This is something we embraced, in a bipartisan way, several years ago and deviated from during the last couple of years," Rep. DiPinto said. "I think it is most appropriate to get reading resources teachers who will focus on teaching reading in the appropriate way."
Fifty reading specialists are already on the job. The proposal would guarantee that each Delaware public elementary school would have a teacher dedicated to improving the students' reading proficiency.
The governor also called for the state to guarantee health insurance for any uninsured cancer victim. State Rep. Deborah Hudson said the proposal, while well-intentioned, is ill-considered.
"I’m not sure how I could explain that in my district to the people that are suffering from heart disease or diabetes," she said. "Certainly we have a lot of cancer, but I think it's arbitrary to provide health insurance based solely on what type of serious illness a patient has contracted."
State House Majority Leader Wayne Smith said he is concerned by the amount of new spending proposed by the governor. He noted that the budget is facing inflationary pressures due to several factors, including increases in Medicaid costs and employee health care.
He said these anticipated cost increases could raise spending by $160 million in Fiscal Year 2005. Rep. Smith said if the governor's spending proposals are added to those unavoidable expenses, the state budget could grow at a double-digit rate.
State Sen. Minority Leader John Still said he was disappointed by what the governor didn't mention in her address. He noted the governor did not commit to a pay raise for state employees, nor did she mention the need to improve the senior prescription drug program.
Sen. Still was especially distressed that the governor failed to support substance abuse treatment programs for Delaware's inmate population.
"I have a brother in prison. He needs certainty. He needs help. A lot of us have relatives who have had problems with drugs and alcohol. To tell them that there is no certainty coming out (of prison) and that they're going back to the same environment is not the solution."
Rep. Smith stressed that he will be very interested in the governor's budget proposal that will be released Jan. 29. He said the budget will contain more specifics about the governor's new initiatives and how much they could cost taxpayers.
Chief among the governor's proposals contained in the address were:
- Adding 68 new reading resource teachers to the 50 existing specialists. The proposal would give every public elementary school in the state a reading resource teacher.
- Full-day kindergarten for every elementary school in Delaware by 2008.
$9 million to fund the purchase of textbooks, technology and other supplies for public school classrooms.
- The creation of the Delaware Teacher Corps. The proposal would recruit students to train as teachers at Delaware state institutions of higher learning. The state would pay for their education, but graduates would have to teach one year in Delaware for every year of educational funding they received.
- A $46 million economic development package. The package of state/federal and private funds would be used to retain existing businesses, provide capital for start-up companies, and invest in emerging technologies businesses.
- Guarantee health insurance for every person diagnosed with cancer not already covered by insurance or eligible for Medicaid.
- Double state funding -- an additional $5 million -- to fund cancer prevention, education and screening.
- Require tighter air quality standards be imposed on Delaware power plants focusing on sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury.
- $22 million for new Green Infrastructure Program to form partnerships with environmental groups to preserve natural habitats.
- Urged the Senate to pass legislation lowering the legal blood alcohol level to .08 (already passed by the House in 2003).
- Urged the Senate to pass HB 99, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing and employment (already passed by the House in 2003).
- $12 million to address on-going problems with the 800MHz radio system serving police, fire and emergency workers.
- An unspecified amount to build a Delaware Veterans Home.
Human Cloning Bill on Hold
The House Health & Human Development Committee has tabled a controversial bill on human cloning.
S.B. 55 would prohibit the use of cloning techniques to produce a human infant. However, the bill would not restrict the use of cloning technologies to produce embryonic stem cells for biomedical and agricultural research. Much of the disagreement over the bill centers on this latter aspect of the legislation.
State Rep. Pam Maier, the committee chair, indicated she plans to bring the bill up for a vote as soon as some questions posed by committee members about the legislation are addressed. No firm date for action has been set.
Speaker of the House Being "Replaced"
State Rep. Terry Spence is Delaware’s longest-serving Speaker of the House, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he requires periodic maintenance. As a result, one piece of Speaker Spence’s original equipment has been supplanted by a replacement.
In an operation performed at Wilmington Hospital on Jan. 20, orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Axon performed a partial replacement of the Speaker's right knee. A portion of the Speaker’s right knee is now made of durable metal and polyethylene.
Speaker Spence, who went through a similar procedure in November 2001 when he had a total replacement of his left knee, said he was compelled to undergo the surgery. "The governor had her knee replaced and I didn’t want anyone thinking she was tougher than I was," he said.
Recovery following surgery forced the Speaker to miss attending the governor's State of the State Address, which was delivered in the House Chamber two days after his operation. Speaker Spence did, however, watch the televised speech. Rehabilitation of the repaired knee is expected to take three to five weeks.
New Bills (Introduced or submitted to the House this week.*)
Senate Concurrent Resolution 27 (Sponsors: Sen. McDowell & Rep. D. Ennis) -- This bill would create a task force that would be responsible for designing and exploring the creation of a pilot mandatory curbside recycling program. Status: Pending action in the House Natural Resources & Environmental Management Committee.
House Joint Resolution 17 (Sponsors: Rep. Ulbrich) -- This resolution congratulates the University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hens football team on winning its first Division 1-AA National Championship and thanks the team for a spectacular and memorable 2003 football season. Status: Passed the House and Senate. Pending the governor’s signature.
House Bill 323 (Rep. Booth) -- This charter change for the City of Lewes is intended to provide flexibility for regular meetings of city council. Status: Passed the House, pending action in the Senate.
House Bill 326 (Sponsors: Reps. Oberle & Smith) -- This act would allow veterans who have served honorably for 90 or more consecutive days on active duty in the U.S. armed forces one year of free access to Delaware’s parks and one year of free hunting and fishing licenses following the date of their honorable discharge or removal from active status. Status: Pending action in the House Natural Resources & Environmental Management Committee.
House Bill 327 (Sponsors: Rep. Oberle) -- This bill would exempt the Food Bank of Delaware from paying tipping fees for the disposal of excess donated food at the state’s landfills. Status: Pending action in the House Natural Resources & Environmental Management Committee.
Action on Bills*
Senate Bill 192 and 193 (Sponsors: Sen. Adams & Rep. Ewing) – These two bills would change the Bridgeville charter to permit the town commissioners to accept grants or loans from federal, state, or interstate agencies; to issue bonds for such debt without public sale; and to pledge tax revenues for the payment of the debt without affecting the limitation on borrowing. The proceeds of such loans may be used only for the purposes set out in Section 29, including erection, extension, enlargement or repair of infrastructure. Additionally, the $200,000 limit on the revenue raised by property taxes would be eliminated to avoid the inadvertent violation of the limitation when annexations occur and additional assessable property is added to the municipal tax rolls. Status: Passed the House and Senate. Pending the governor's signature.
Senate Bill 156 (Sponsors: Sen. Henry) -- This bill would have enabled the Division of Motor Vehicles to renew a driver's license, identification card or duplicate documents by mail or Internet. The bill was soundly defeated by a vote of 6 "yes" and 31 "no". Some House members had expressed concern that without the need for a personal appearance, a driver's license could be reissued to someone not fit to operate a motor vehicle. Status: Defeated.
Senate Bill 194 (Sponsors: Sen. Simpson & Rep. Booth) -- This change to the City of Lewes charter is intended to modify and modernize the provisions for long-term borrowing and bond funding as well as to clarify the voter qualifications for the required public referendum. Status: Passed the House and Senate. Pending the governor’s signature.
House Bill 20 (Sponsor: Reps. Ewing & Cathcart ) -- This bill would allow a former prisoner-of-war or Purple Heart recipient, displaying a special prisoner-of-war or Purple Heart license plate, to park free of charge in state, county or municipal metered parking spaces or public parking facilities. This provision would only apply when the former POW or Purple Heart recipient was operating or occupying the vehicle to which the special license plate is assigned. The bill also calls for the Department of Public Safety to request the return of these special license plates upon the death of the tag holders. There are currently 61 POW and 302 Purple Heart license plates issued by the Division of Motor Vehicles. Status: Released from the House Public Safety Committee. Ready for action by the full House.
* Partial list, only includes action on selected bills.