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House of Representatives News: Jan. 20, 2006
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The week in review from the Delaware House of Representatives for the week ending Friday, Jan. 20, 2006:

House Passes Altered Version of Cloning Bill

The State House of Representatives passed a drastically altered version of Senate Bill 80. Although the measure is best known for its attempt to establish guidelines for embryonic stem cell research in the First State, those provisions were deleted from the bill before its passage.

SB 80, as it was originally written, would have only allowed the use of human embryos for research under very limited circumstances.

“I think it would have been prudent to have stem cell regulations in place before this research gets underway in our state,” said State Rep. Deborah Hudson, the lead House sponsor of SB 80. “Right now we have no state statutes dealing with stem cell research, so everything is legal.”

While she indicated she was disappointed that the embryonic stem cell provisions were stripped out of SB 80, she said the amended bill is still a significant piece of legislation. “If it’s enacted, it’ll ban human reproductive cloning and prohibit the sale of human embryos,” Rep. Hudson said.

Under the legislation, anyone found guilty of trying to create a viable, cloned human being would face a $1 million fine for each offense. Anyone selling human embryos would be fined $100,000 per violation. Both crimes would be Class E felonies, carrying a possible prison sentence of up to five years.

Many researchers believe embryonic stem cells could eventually be used to cure people with a host of medical conditions including Alzheimer’s Disease and spinal cord injuries. Opponents of the research believe that embryos constitute human life and oppose any experimentation on ethical grounds.

Senate Bill 80 now goes back to the Senate for approval. If passed, it will move to the governor to be signed into law.

Governor, Speaker Differ on Vets Home Oversight

Governor Ruth Ann Minner has signed an executive order placing the Delaware Veterans Home under the purview of the Department of State. That move is at odds with legislation introduced earlier by Speaker of the House Terry Spence that seeks to give the Delaware Commission on Veterans Affairs oversight authority of the 150-bed facility.

Ground was broken in Milford last August for the $29.9 million project. Delaware remains the only state in the Lower 48 without a long-term care facility dedicated to veterans. That should change early this December when the home is expected to open its doors.

Under the governor’s executive order, the Delaware Commission on Veterans Affairs and Veterans Home will be separate divisions within the same agency (the Department of State). But Speaker Spence said he is puzzled by the move. “Without any cross-linkage between the commission and the Vets Home, how is the governor’s proposal helpful? Proximity is not oversight.”

The Speaker also questioned why the governor chose to take this action via executive order 11 months prior to the home’s opening. “An executive order is only in effect during Gov. Minner’s remaining term in office,” Speaker Spence said. “The next governor will be able to change this arrangement by issuing his or her own executive order. The future oversight and management of the Veterans Home shouldn’t be left in doubt. If the governor feels this is a good proposal, why not seek to make it permanent through legislation?”

The governor’s executive order also establishes an advisory board of veterans to offer recommendations on how the facility is operated. However, the board has no authority to implement these recommendations.

Corbit Goff, a former state commander for the American Legion, says he supports House Bill 335 that would make the Veterans Commission as the agency overseeing the Veterans Home. “Many of the veterans continue to carry service-related injuries and psychological problems,” he said. “Having veterans in charge of the facility will ensure that patients are treated with the sensitively and understanding that only another vet can provide.”

The Speaker says veterans throughout the state lobbied hard to have HB 335 introduced and strongly support its passage. Mr. Goff said there is ample precedent for the proposal, noting that at least 20 states operate veterans homes that are overseen by a Veterans Affairs Commission or a State Veterans Affairs Committee.

Under HB 335, day-to-day operation of the home would be in the hands of medical professionals and skilled healthcare administrators. “The home would be professionally run and managed by people with the expertise to do these specialized jobs. This bill simply deals with the question of oversight,” Speaker Spence said.

HB 335 has bipartisan support in the General Assembly. Thus far, 35 of the legislature’s 62 lawmakers are sponsoring the bill. Speaker Spence said the bill could be taken up by the full House before the General Assembly recesses for the six-week break for budget hearings at the end of the month.

House Passes Bill to Expand Slots Play

Acting to position the state in anticipation of slot machine competition from Pennsylvania, the Delaware House of Representatives has approved legislation to expand slot machine gaming.

House Bill 332 would increase the maximum number of video lottery machines (slot machines) allowed at each of the three horse tracks where they are currently authorized: Delaware Park, Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway. Under the legislation, the cap would rise from 2,500 to 4,000 machines.

HB 332 would also allow Delaware slot machines to be in nearly continuous use. Currently, slot machines cannot be played between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and 4 a.m. and noon on Sundays. HB 332 would change that, authorizing slot machine venues to operate 24 hours daily except Sundays, when play would have to shut down between 6 a.m. to noon. The bill would not affect the current prohibition on slots play during Christmas and Easter.

Supporters of the legislation note that it will help Delaware compete against Pennsylvania, which has legalized slot machine play but has not yet opened any active venues. “This is the first step of a long process to make us more competitive,” said State Rep. Vince Lofink, a prime sponsor of House Bill 332. “I think there is the possibility of a new hotel being built at Delaware Park and expanded operations at Harrington [Raceway], so there are a lot of possibilities.”

When the bill is fully implemented, Rep. Lofink said it should mean at least $11 million in additional state revenue annually. “There are also going to be additional [race horsing] purse enhancements as there is additional revenue from the slot machines, so there is something in it for everybody. It’s a shared opportunity and just like the whole thing is a shared responsibility.”

The bill also guarantees that at least $1 million will be earmarked annually to fund the treatment and prevention of problem gambling.

The bill is in line with recommendations made by the Video Lottery Advisory Council. The group suggested in November that Delaware increase the number of licensed slot machines as well as their hours of operation. HB 332 now moves to the Senate for consideration where it is expected to get favorable treatment.

Members Commended for Humanitarian Effort

Members of the State House of Representatives were recently commended (1/17) for helping the 150th Aviation Unit of the Delaware Army National Guard carry out humanitarian work in Iraq.

While on active duty, the unit dropped more than 800 soccer balls, 640 bungee balls and 3,000 Beanie Babies to Iraqi children. State Rep. Bill Oberle was singled out for special recognition for his role in promoting the unit’s altruism.

Retired New Castle County Police Capt. George Williamson and his wife Pam, who supplied the 150th with much of the merchandise they distributed, presented Rep. Oberle with a framed artwork of a Blackhawk helicopter flying over Bagdad as well as an American flag flown during a mission in Iraq.

The couple said Rep. Oberle’s actions raised morale and generated donations for the effort. The Williamsons’ son, Elwood Gilger, is a Blackhawk helicopter pilot with the 150th Aviation Regiment. He recently returned from Iraq and took part in the presentation.

Action on Bills*

House Bill 336 - (Sponsors: Reps. Spence & Hudson) – HB 336 would require that Delaware Farm Wineries sell their product to wholesalers for distribution to retailers as all other manufacturers or suppliers are required to do. Status: Pending action in the House Administration Committee.

House Bill 334 - (Sponsors: Rep. Schooley, et. al.) – HB 334 would create identity theft "passports" for persons who are victims of identity theft and have filed police reports regarding such thefts. The Office of the Attorney General could issue a passport if it is reasonably assured that the applicant has an adequately substantiated claim. A victim of identity theft may present a passport to a law enforcement agency to help prevent his or her arrest or detention for an offense committed by someone other than the victim who is using the victim's identity. The passport could also be used in cases where fraudulent charges have been made in the victim’s name or new accounts were opened using the victim's identity. Consumer reporting agencies must accept the passport as notice of a dispute and must include in all future reports that they contain disputed information caused by the identity theft. Law enforcement agencies and creditors would still have discretion to accept or reject the passport. Status: Pending action in the House Judiciary Committee.

House Joint Resolution 19 - (Sponsors: Reps. Schooler & Hall-Long, et. al.) – This joint resolution seeks to create a task force of legislators, educators and business people to study the issue of maximum class size in kindergarten through third grade in Delaware’s public schools. Among other things, the group would examine and report on current class size limits, waivers granted to districts that are unable to comply, and efforts being made to reduce class size in other states. The task force's recommendations are to be submitted to the General Assembly by May 15, 2006. Status: Pending action in the House Education Committee.

Senate Bill 242 - (Sponsors: Sen. Cook & Rep. DiPinto, et. al.) – This bill would appropriate $5 million to the state’s school districts and charter schools to help them cope with unexpectedly high energy costs in the current fiscal year. Status: Passed the Senate. Pending action in the House Appropriations Committee.

House Bill 333 - (Sponsors: Rep. Caulk) – If enacted, this bill would require the Department of Correction to notify an inmate’s emergency contact or next-of-kin if the inmate is taken to a medical facility outside the prison or receives hospice services for a terminal illness. The department would be compelled to identify the name and location of the facility or hospice where the inmate will receive service and must do the same for defendants held in their custody. Status: Pending action in the House Corrections Committee.

House Concurrent Resolution 42 - (Sponsors: Reps. Maier & Ulbrich & Wagner) – House Concurrent Resolution 42 establishes the Alternative Education Task Force to review alternative education possibilities that currently exist in other states and consider additions, modifications and recommendations to programs in Delaware. The task force will report its findings and recommendations by November 1, 2006. Status: Enacted.

House Bill 329 - (Sponsors: Reps. Roy, Hudson, et. al.) – This bill, also known as the Restroom Access Act, seeks to require retail establishments that have toilet facilities for their employees to allow customers to use those facilities if certain conditions are met. The bill also defines the circumstances under which retail establishments would not be civilly liable for any act or omission in allowing a customer to use their bathrooms. Additionally, it provides that a retail establishment is not required to make any physical changes to their toilet facilities. A retail business or an employee that violates this proposed law could face a fine of up to $100. Rep. Hudson, a sponsor of the bill, says the legislation is motivated by a desire to help the elderly or people with medical conditions that often require more immediate access to a bathroom than the placement of public facilities allow. Status: Pending action in the House Labor Committee.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 24 - (Sponsors: Sens. McBride & Blevins) – This resolution urges the members of the Red Clay District School Board to preserve the name “Henry C. Conrad” when the middle school that currently bears his names is converted to high school specializing in biotechnology and health. Status: Enacted.

* Partial list, only includes action on selected bills.

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