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House of Representatives News: March 21, 2008
By Sussex County Online
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Even when you’re expecting it, a bucket of ice water poured down your back will still provoke a startled reaction.  The latest state revenue estimates had the same effect on Delaware lawmakers, sending a shiver down the spines of many in Legislative Hall.


As part of a fiscal management strategy that has earned Delaware triple-A bond ratings (the highest), a non-partisan group of officials regularly meet to gauge the flow of state revenue.  Although expected to be bad, the latest estimates were still met with a sense of bewilderment.


At its most recent meeting, the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council (DEFAC) predicted that revenues will be down an additional $125.9 million for the current fiscal year ending June 30th and a further $200.5 million for Fiscal Year 2009.


Since July 1, the state revenue forecast has eroded by $416.2 million.  Cost control efforts have trimmed that cumulative shortfall by almost $90 million.   However, based on the governor’s proposed budget, that still leaves officials facing $326.4 million in collective red ink for the remainder of FY 2008 and FY 2009.


State Rep. William Oberle (R-Beecher’s Lot), the co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, says while the situation is daunting it’s not time to hit the panic button just yet.  In fact, he said the financial challenge may force the state to be more creative and innovative.


“I think there is an opportunity here to partially reinvent government,” he said.  “We’re going through the process right now to prioritize, to see where there are efficiencies we can achieve or cuts that can be made without impacting core services.”


One cost-cutting proposal that has been offered for consideration calls for shifting the state to a four-day work week.  Speaker of the House Terry R. Spence (R-Stratford) is urging the Minner administration to consider implementing a compressed work schedule for non-essential state employees, who would work the same hours in fewer days.


While hardly anything is being ruled out as budget writers deal with the realities of a slowing economy one thing is still considered off-limits: the Rainy Day Fund.  The fund, which has been set aside for the state to deal with disastrous situations, contains well over $100 million.


“I think there is a general consensus that the Rainy Day Fund is off the table, as it should be,” Rep. Oberle said.  “The declarations needed to use it would require a catastrophic circumstance and we’re not there.”


However, Rep. Oberle said one of the state’s financial safeguards will likely be in play.  By law, the state is restricted from spending more than 98-percent of projected revenues.  The two-percent buffer acts as a hedge against the unexpected and prevents the state from inadvertently spending money it doesn’t have.  The General Assembly can override the guideline with a three-fifths vote in both chambers – something that Rep. Oberle said will likely take place.


By virtue of falling revenue, the state is already spending above the 98-percent limit in the current budget.  Removing the protocol for the upcoming FY 2009 spending plan would give budget writers approximately $70 million more to help close the expected shortfall.


“This would not be the first time we’ve done that,” Rep. Oberle said.  “I can think of at least three other times that we’ve done this, [like when] we had particularly bad years in 1991 and 1992.  This would not be precedent-setting by any means, but it could be one of the tools we use to try to manage our way out of this problem.”


Hardly anyone expects revenue estimates to rebound before a new operating budget needs to be enacted and that has some legislators concerned about what their colleagues may propose.


“What worries me a little bit is typically when you have these kinds of situations the first thing that various legislators start talking about is tax increases,” said State House Majority Leader Richard Cathcart (R-Middletown).


Rep. Cathcart said it would be unfair to add higher taxes to the burden of families already struggling to deal with escalating food and fuel prices.  He added that higher taxes could also slow the economy, aggravating the state’s fiscal problems.


“I think legislators need to show restraint,” he said.  “I think we need to cut the budget in every way we can.  Quite frankly, I don’t think we should be looking at any tax increases at all.  We need to look at how much state government has grown over the last eight to 16 years. … I think there are a whole bunch of opportunities out there that we need to look at.”


Bills Seek Removal of Renewable Energy Hurdles

State Rep. Bill Oberle (R-Beecher’s Lot) and State Sen. Dave McBride (D-Hawk’s Nest) are sponsoring legislation intended to make it easier for homeowners to use wind and solar energy.


The two bill package includes one House and one Senate measure, each of which will be sponsored by both legislators.


Rep. Oberle’s House Bill 344 would allow a homeowner to place a wind turbine on their property, even if “covenants” – restrictions written into the deed of the property – prohibit the practice.


Specifically, the bills states:  “Any covenant, restriction, or condition contained in a deed, contract or other legal instrument … that prohibits or unreasonably restricts the owner of the property from using a system for obtaining wind energy … is void and unenforceable.”


“There are a lot of housing developments in our state that, out of a desire to maintain a certain look for their communities, impose a set of standards on the homeowners living there,” Rep. Oberle said.  “I live in a sub-division, so I’m familiar with the practice and even acknowledge the need for it.  Having said that, a set of local prohibitions that prevents people from utilizing renewable energy is short-sighted, especially when these rules have been enacted for purely aesthetic reasons.”


According to the American Wind Energy Association, the makers of so-called “small wind” systems – turbines designed for use by homes, farms, and small businesses – have seen their market grow significantly in the last 10 years.  The market for small wind equipment is expected to grow up to 20-percent annually through 2010.  The AWEA says the U.S. is the leading producer of small wind turbines, the vast majority of which are manufactured domestically. 


Sen. McBride’s bill is similar to HB 344, but focuses on the use of solar energy in residential environs.  The as yet unnumbered Senate bill seeks to set aside restrictions currently barring the placement of solar panels on Delaware homes.


House Sends Lobbying Restriction Bill to Senate

The State House of Representatives sent a “good government” bill to the Senate on Thursday.  On a unanimous vote of 40 to 0, the House approved House Bill 196, sponsored by State Rep. Deborah Hudson (R-Fairthorne). 


The measure, also informally referred to as the “Revolving Door Act”, would prohibit former state officials from becoming lobbyists for a period of one year after they leave their state posts.  The bill, as amended, would apply to members of the General Assembly, the heads of state agencies, cabinet officials, the governor’s executive staff and any person elected to state office.


Rep. Hudson says such laws are common across the country.  “Many other states have done this.  I believe 17 states have a two-year prohibition and nine states have a one year prohibition, so there is that sentiment in other states that there should be a cooling off period.”


A violation of the bill would be an unclassified misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a fine of up to $575, and other court-order sanctions.


Before the measure passed, State Rep. John Kowalko (D-Newark South) attempted to remove the governor’s staff and agency heads from the scope of the bill arguing that such a prohibition would deter some of “the best and brightest” from serving in the executive branch.  He added that former department and division leaders should not he held to the same standard as state legislators because lawmakers had more ability to impact state policy. 


Several lawmakers took exception to these opinions.


“To suggest that cabinet officials or members of the governor’s executive staff are not policy-makers is ludicrous,” said State Rep. Bill Oberle (R-Beecher’s Lot).  “Not only should they be included, I think they need to be included in the provisions of this legislation.”


State Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Lewes) defended the proposed exclusion, saying that existing law already sufficiently covered executive branch officials who are looking to engage in lobbying activities after leaving public service. 


“We already have rules in place with the Public Integrity Commission that say that if you … have policy-making responsibilities in a specific area than you’re prohibited for two full years from doing anything in that area. But it shouldn’t prohibit you from working in an area you had no effect on.”


Rep. Lavelle disagreed, citing the personal and professional relationships that agency heads and members of the governor’s staff build during their terms of service.  He said that it’s these relationships, more than an individual’s area of expertise, which could potentially lead such former officials to exert influence as lobbyists.


After listening to the debate, Rep. Kowalko removed the amendment from consideration.


The Revolving Door Act now moves to the Senate for consideration.


Single Gender Charter Schools Bill Passes

Legislation that will clear the way for an all-boy charter school is heading to the governor for her consideration.


House Bill 285 was a response to a Delaware Department of Education (DOE) decision to withhold federal funding for a proposed same-gender charter school, the Prestige Academy, a Wilmington-based middle school for troubled boys.


U.S. Department of Education regulations were amended two years ago to permit single-gender schools, but Delaware law has lagged behind.  HB 285 is intended to remedy that situation. 


The bill would also create a level playing field for the state’s charter schools.  Traditional public schools in Delaware are already allowed to establish same-gender educational opportunities. 


Approximately 240 public schools in more than 30 states have begun offering single-sex education as the result of evidence showing some children learn better in gender-specific classrooms. 


“It is said that single-gender middle schools are very successful,” said State Rep. Deborah Hudson (R-Fairthorne), a sponsor of the HB 285.  She added that such schools would broaden Delaware’s educational palette and would be a valuable addition.


Rep. Hudson says 85 families have already expressed an interest in sending children to Prestige Academy, which is expected to begin operations in August.


New License Plates Honor Vets, Families of Fallen Military

A bill on its way to the governor could create several new license plates to honor veterans and memorialize fallen servicemen.


Senate Bill 201 would create a host of new motor vehicle specialty tags for specific groups including Vietnam vets and veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom.


The bill would also create “Gold Star” family license plates.  Close relatives of military service members killed in action in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the current Iraq and Afghanistan missions would be eligible to apply.


State Rep. Dan Short (R-Seaford) – one of a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers to sponsor the bill – said he was especially gratified to have the Gold Star plates included as part of the omnibus measure.


“This is a very emotional thing for these families,” Rep. Short said.  “These folks have had something traumatic in their lives that have changed their lives forever. These tags are just a small token of our appreciation for their sacrifice.”


The US Submarine Veterans, Inc. would benefit from an exception carved out by the bill.  Under current law, the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will only approve a special license plate after it has received at least 200 applications.  SB 201 seeks to add the submariners to the list of non-profit organizations able to get specialty tags after only 35 applications have been received.


The legislation would also expand the scope of existing specialty tags – for disabled veterans, former prisoners of war, and veterans formerly missing-in-action – to include battles fought on foreign soil since the end of the Vietnam War.


After previous failed attempts, the bill would finally grant the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club of Delaware with its own license plate.  The group is part of a national organization geared toward community service, including educating the public about the history of the Buffalo Soldiers: a group of African-American cavalry soldiers who served with distinction during the Indian Wars.


SB 201 includes several of the failed proposals from the 143rd G.A.  The governor has not indicated if she’ll sign the bill, but it was passed unanimously in both chambers, indicating the measure has more than enough support to override a veto.


Action on Bills


Senate Bill 213 (Sponsors: Sen. Adams & Rep. Spence, et. al.) – The asset management firm, Black Rock, is planning an expansion that will reportedly create as many as 300 new jobs in Delaware by 2010.  According to the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO), the deal is contingent upon the enactment of a corporate income tax break that’ll benefit the asset management industry.  This bill seeks to enact that tax change.

Status:  Passed the General Assembly.  Sent to the governor for her consideration.


House Bill 346 (Sponsors: Rep. Cathcart & Sens. Peterson & Copeland et. al.) – This bill would make it a violation of Delaware law for legislators to use their influence to interfere in the state employment process on behalf of a close relative.  The measure is one of a package of five professional conduct bills recently proposed by House Republicans.  Thus far, 36 legislators have signed the measure as sponsors, including members of both parties from both chambers.

Status:  Pending action in the House Administration Committee.


House Resolution 48 (Sponsors: Rep. Lofink, et. al.) – This resolution would add a member to the House Ethics Committee, equally balancing the committee with three members from each political party.  Additionally, the rules would be changed to require the committee to meet monthly in regularly-scheduled sessions while the General Assembly is in session (January through June). 

Status:  Pending action in the House Administration Committee.


House Bill 342 (Sponsor: Rep. Booth) – This bill would create special license plates for Sussex, Kent and New Castle county paramedics.

Status:  Pending action in the House Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee.


House Concurrent Resolution 42 (Sponsors: Rep. Hocker, et. al.) – This resolution would launch a study of New Jersey’s approach to offshore wind development.  It requests the Delaware Energy Office to draft recommendations to encourage the development of the Bluewater Wind offshore wind farm without the requirement of forced contracts.  The recommendations would be submitted to the governor, the Delaware Public Service Commission, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Controller General.

Status:  Pending action in the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee.


House Substitute 1 for House Bill 308 (Sponsors: Rep. Maier, et. al.) – HS 1 for HB 308 would provide for the licensing of professional acupuncturists in Delaware.

Status:  Pending action in the House Policy Analysis & Government Accountability Committee.


House Bill 330 (Sponsors: Rep. Hudson, et. al.) – This measure would require the SEED Program participants, who are enrolled in nursing/medical programs, work in Delaware for two years after their graduation in the medical field.  The SEED program allows Delaware high school students who meet minimum grade requirements to receive no-cost, two-year college scholarships.  HB 330 is intended to help ease Delaware’s nursing shortage.

Status:  Pending action in the House Education Committee.


House Bill 331 (Sponsors: Rep. Lavelle & Sen. Copeland) – This act would require information concerning the distributions from the Delaware Strategic Fund to be posted on the Delaware Economic Development Office’s website.

Status:  House Economic Development/Banking & Insurance Committee.


House Bill 332 (Sponsors: Rep. Lavelle & Sen. Copeland) – This is the first leg of a proposed Constitutional Amendment that would require that the Bond Bill be completed at least three days prior to voting and the state operating budget be completed at least two days before voting.  The bill is intended to give the press and the public an opportunity to review the funding bills before the General Assembly acts on them.

Status:  Pending action in the House Administration Committee.


House Bill 334 (Sponsors: Rep. Lavelle & Sen. Copeland) – This act would require the creation of a searchable budget database website to allow taxpayers to access details of how their tax dollars are being spent.

Status:  Pending action in the House Administration Committee.


House Bill 335 (Sponsors: Rep. Lavelle, et. al.) – This bill would enable certain child sexual abuse victims to seek redress in a civil action against the State of Delaware, its political subdivisions and school districts during a two-year window.

Status:  Pending action in the House Judiciary Committee.


House Bill 336 (Sponsors: Rep. Lavelle & Sen. Copeland) – This bill would require each state agency to post its checking account activity (other than payroll checks) on its website.  It further requires pay and benefits to be posted by job title at the beginning of each fiscal year.

Status:  Pending action in the House Administration Committee.


House Bill 338 (Sponsors: Rep. Lavelle & Sen. Copeland) – This act seeks to require the creation and maintenance of a searchable website for contracts entered into by school districts and charter schools.

Status:  Pending action in the House Education Committee.


House Bill 339 (Sponsors: Reps. Hudson & Valihura, et. al.) – HB 339 would add a $30 fee on to all marriage licenses issued in Delaware.  The money raised by the new fee would help pay for domestic violence programs.  Supporters of the bill maintain the money is needed to replace lost federal funding.  Approximately 30 other states have added fees to marriage licenses to pay for domestic violence programs.  Based on the marriage licenses issued in 2006 (the most recent year for statistics) the proposal would generate approximately $170,000 annually.

Status:  Pending action in the House Health & Human Development Committee.


Senate Bill 191 (Sponsors: Sen. Sokola, et. al.) – SB 191 would prevent insurance companies from terminating homeowners’ policies as the result of reasonable claims made against those policies.  It would also prohibit companies from raising policyholders’ rates or terminating their insurance in response to customers’ policy questions.

Status:  Passed the Senate.  Pending action in the House Economic Development/Banking & Insurance Committee.

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