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State  Last Updated: Dec 9th, 2009 - 09:24:51

Minner Leaves Red Ink in Final Budget
By Sussex County Online
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Outgoing Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s recently-introduced budget for Fiscal Year 2010 contains hundreds-of-millions of dollars in spending beyond what the state expects to have in its coffers.

 

While the $3.063 billion plan is approximately $288 million less than the current operating budget enacted on July 1, 2008, the proposed budget delivered on Jan. 13, 2009, is still $367 million short of anticipated state revenue for Fiscal Year 2010, which begins July 1, 2009. 

 

That leaves Governor-elect Jack Markell and the General Assembly with a short list of unattractive choices.

 

JFC member, State Rep. Joe Booth (R-Georgetown), said this is the biggest, but not the first, budgetary challenge Gov. Minner has given lawmakers. 

 

“I’ve been on the JFC two years and both years Gov. Minner has thrown (legislators) little wrinkles in terms of her budget and left a lot of the decisions and direction up to the General Assembly, so this is a trip down memory lane,” Rep. Booth said.

 

The decisions facing lawmakers and the new Markell administration are largely limited to making significantly deeper budget cuts, tax hikes, or some combination of the two.  Another option is to find ways to generate additional revenue not derived from taxes, such as legalizing table games and parley sports-betting.

 

While containing a massive amount of red ink, the Minner budget does include $190 million in proposed cuts.  However, after he takes office Jan. 20, Gov. Markell could be faced with scaling back some of these suggested reductions since they may adversely impact state agency operations. 

 

Delaware lawmakers and the new governor will also have to contend with making an estimated $109.2 million in cuts to the current budget.  As state revenue estimates have continued to fall in FY 2009, officials have had to cut spending to keep pace.

 

If the adage that “misery loves company” is true, Delaware officials can take solace in the knowledge they do not face their challenges alone.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 43 other states also face budget shortfalls.  Only Texas, Alaska, West Virginia, Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota are not currently dealing with red ink.

 

Most of Delaware’s troubles can be traced to the slowing world economy, reducing the state’s collection of personal and corporate income taxes as well as other sources of funding.  In coming months, state revenue estimates – periodically issued by the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council (DEFAC) – could continue to spiral downward, creating even more budgetary trouble.

 

Rep. Booth said while the Minner proposal provides a starting point, the new Markell administration and the Joint Finance Committee face a monumental task. 

 

“These things are going to have to be addressed by a committee of 12 of us,” Rep. Booth said. 

 

He noted that while crafting the current budget was a challenge, the next budget will be exponentially more difficult to write. 

 

Unlike the federal government, state law requires Delaware to enact a balanced operating budget.  In fact, lawmakers are limited to budgeting no more than 98-percent of expected revenue.  Statutory limits have also been placed on the amount the state can borrow.

 

In addition to the operating budget, Gov. Minner also released a proposed capital spending plan (Bond Bill) for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1.  The recommended $344 million Bond Bill contains $185.1 million earmarked for road and bridge projects.  The proposal is nearly 43-percent less than the current capital budget.

 

Delaware’s Bond Bill could get a boost from President-elect Barack Obama, who is urging the enactment of a large federal stimulus package including funding for public works projects throughout the U.S. 

 

In the meantime, state officials must deal with the stark economic reality with which they’re faced.

 

Bills to Fix Delaware Psychiatric Center in House

 

A package of bills designed to improve care at the problem-plagued Delaware Psychiatric Center has been reintroduced in the State House of Representatives.

 

Sponsored by House Minority Leader Richard Cathcart (R-Middletown) and other legislators, the eight bills are the result of a bipartisan investigation by the 11-member Delaware Psychiatric Center Investigative Committee.  Chaired by Rep. Cathcart, the committee conducted an extensive probe into highly-publicized allegations of patient abuse and staff intimidation at the Wilmington-area hospital.

 

After a five month investigation, the committee concluded “that an atmosphere of abuse, neglect and intimidation continues to exist” at the DPC. 

 

A similar package of corrective legislation was introduced in the State House of Representatives last year.  Most of the bills passed the House, but died after the Senate failed to consider the measures before the end of the 144th General Assembly.

 

The package of bills includes:

           

  • House Bill 34, which seeks to establish an independent Morbidity and Mortality Review Committee to review all deaths at the DPC.

 

  • House Bill 36, which would ensure that Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. (CLASI), as required under federal law, is granted clear and unfettered access to patient records as the organization investigates complaints of abuse, neglect or mistreatment at the facility.  The bill also protects DPC employees from reprisal or harassment if they report alleged instances of patient abuse. 

 

  • House Bill 37, which seeks to improve patient rights at the DPC, including new protocols for how and when restraints can be used on patients.

 

  • House Bill 39, which seeks to expand the scope of existing state anti-retaliation protections to all patients and employees at the DPC.

 

  • House Bill 41, which would define minimum patient rights for residential and non-residential mental health patients. 

 

  • House Bill 42, which requires the facility to be run as an independent entity that would be permanently removed from the purview of Delaware Health and Social Services (DHSS) and directed by the authority of a governing board.

 

Other DPC-related bills expected to be introduced this month include a measure to require that all DPC employees responsible for direct patient care submit to criminal background checks and drug testing. 

 

Bill Would Ban Cell Phones, Texting While Driving

 

One state lawmaker is renewing his fight to prohibit the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

 

House Bill 40, sponsored by State Rep. Joe Miro (R-Pike Creek), would fine motorists who use hand-held cell phones when they’re behind the wheel.  The bill would also fine drivers who engage in e-mailing or text messaging.

 

The proposal is an amalgam of two House bills introduced during the last General Assembly session.  One bill was defeated by a two-to-one margin, while the other died in committee.

 

“I brought this back because it is very close to my heart and I really think we need to address the issue,” Rep. Miro said.  “When you’re driving and texting or using a hand-held cell phone, you’re putting yourself at-risk, as well as the people driving next to you.”

 

According to data provided by the Delaware State Police, cell phones were a factor in 252 traffic accidents last year.  In 2007, cell phones were cited as contributing to 214 accidents.  Authorities in the First State have only recently begun tracking the relationship.  According to Rep. Miro, the number of Delaware traffic mishaps involving cell phones has trended upward annually since 2005. 

 

Rep. Miro’s case was further bolstered by the National Safety Council (NSC), which earlier this month called for motorists to stop using cell phones and messaging devices while driving.  Additionally, the NSC urged governors and legislators in all 50 states to enact laws banning the behavior.

 

The NSC cited a Harvard Center of Risk Analysis study that estimates that cell phone use while driving contributes to six percent of crashes.  If accurate, that would equate to 636,000 crashes, 330,000 injuries, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths in the U.S. each year.

 

However, Rep. Miro said he feels the NSC’s call for an outright ban on cell phone use is a little too extreme.  “The cell phone is something that has a very important function in our society,” he said.  “It has become part of our daily lives and I do not intend to ban the use of the cell phone [while driving], just the hand-held cell phone.”

 

House Bill 40 would create a “primary offense”, allowing police to stop and ticket motorists solely for that infraction.  Those breaking the law would face a civil penalty of $50, although no points would be assessed on their driving records.

 

The proposal would also prohibit Delaware’s local governments from enacting their own cell phone/messaging ordinances.

 

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, at least five states currently prohibit the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.  Additionally, Alaska, Connecticut, California, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington have banned text-messaging while operating a vehicle.  Numerous other states have enacted laws specifically targeting young drivers, barring them from texting or using any type of cell phone.

 

House Bill 40 is currently pending action in the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.

 

State House of Representatives Reorganizes

 

Chief among the noteworthy changes in this year’s Delaware House of Representatives was political control of the chamber, which now rests with 24 Democratic state representatives.  The Republicans, who had been in the majority for more than 20 years, have 17 members. 

 

State Rep. Robert Gilligan (D-Sherwood Park) was selected as the new Speaker of the House.  Speaker Gilligan, who was first elected in 1972, is the most tenured state representative in Delaware history with 36 years of continuous service thus far.

 

As the 145th General Assembly session gets underway, House Minority Whip Dan Short (R-Seaford) says lawmakers of both parties are going to face some very difficult challenges, not the least of which is the state’s fiscal woes.

 

The slowing economy has reduced state revenue.  By some estimates, the state currently faces a combined budgetary shortfall in the current and upcoming fiscal years of approximately $600 million.

 

Rep. Short says reducing the cost of government needs to take first priority, followed by ways to increase state revenue that do not rely on creating new taxes or raising existing ones.

 

Rep. Short said last year many state lawmakers pledged to “consider everything” to deal with the budget shortfall.  But he says that didn’t really happen. 

 

“This year I think it is going to be more important to hold to that pledge to consider everything and make people do some of the things they weren’t willing to do the last two years,” he said.

 

Action on Bills*

 

House Concurrent Resolution 1 (Sponsors: Reps. Brady & Plant & Sen. Marshall, et. al.) – This House concurrent resolution urges Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.  The sponsors contend the federal law would "protect and preserve working Americans freedom to choose whether or not to form a union."  However, the federal proposal has generated national controversy.  Under current law, union organizers can request an organizing election once 30 percent of a company's workers sign union authorization cards.  Once this threshold is reached, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) orders a secret-ballot election to be held.  The Employee Free Choice Act would eliminate the election process, if more than 50-percent of a company’s employees sign the authorization cards.  While supporters say this is a common sense approach that removes a needless step, detractors note this change would expose those opposed to the union to coercion since their wishes would have to be expressed in a public, rather than private, process.

Status:  Pending action in the Administration Committee.

 

House Bill 27 (Sponsor: Rep. Kowalko) – This bill seeks to restrict former legislators from lobbying for a period of one year after their term of office ends. Those violating the measure would be guilty of an unclassified misdemeanor.  The measure is similar to legislation sponsored by State Rep. Deborah Hudson (R-Fairthorne) in the last General Assembly.  Broader in scope, that bill (House Bill 196) also proposed placing lobbying restrictions on state agencies heads, cabinet officials, the governor’s executive staff and all statewide elected officials.  HB 196 passed the House unanimously, but died in the Senate without action.

Status:  Pending action in the House Administration Committee.

 

House Bill 24 (Sponsor: Rep. Kowalko) – The legislation is designed to prevent hazardous waste generated in Delaware from being sent outside of the United States to countries where health and environmental standards may not be equal to standards in this country.  

Status:  Pending action in the House Administration Committee.

 

House Bill 1 (Sponsors: Rep. Gilligan, et. al.) – When the state’s Freedom of Information Act was passed, the Delaware General Assembly was specifically excluded from its provisions.  HB 1 seeks to make all records and meetings of the state House and Senate subject to the FOIA, except for caucus meetings.  Similar legislation was passed in the State House during the last General Assembly, but was bottled up in committee in the Senate.

Status:  Pending action in the House Administration Committee.

 

House Bill 43 (Sponsors: Rep. Bennett, et. al.) – This bill would change the State Employee Merit Rules to prohibit an employee from being granted a leave of absence to serve a prison sentence or term of incarceration.  The legislation is the result of high-profile news stories disclosing employees with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control were granted such leaves.

Status:  Pending action in the House Labor Committee.

  

House Bill 29 (Sponsors: Reps. Jaques, Longhurst & Cathcart, et. al.) – This legislation seeks to delay the implementation of New Castle County’s controversial “workforce housing ordinance” for six months.  The ordinance allows developers to build more homes in a given area than would otherwise be allowed, provided that a portion of the new housing stock is priced to be affordable to low and middle-income working families.  However, critics of the county law say it results in defacto rezoning without public input, could potentially overburden schools and other supporting infrastructure, and may not be needed in light of falling housing prices.  The sponsors of HB 29 say the six month delay will give the General Assembly time to carefully study and address any issues created by the ordinance.

Status:  Pending action in the House Housing & Community Affairs Committee. 

 

House Bill 30 (Sponsors: Rep. Jaques, et. al.) – This bill proposes increasing the Voluntary School Assessment fee, which is paid by developers to help fund additional school construction needed to support the families moving into new homes.  In addition, the bill would also raise the cap on the Voluntary School Assessment to six percent of the total cost of a residential unit.

Status:  Pending action in the House Education Committee.

 

*partial list



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