State House Week in Review: Jan. 16, 2004
Jan 16, 2004, 12:39

Citing large and sustained projected surpluses in state revenue, Delaware House and Senate Republicans are proposing plans for an across-the-board rollback of the personal income and the gross receipts taxes.

The "Growth & Opportunity Plan" would allow working Delawareans and the business community to keep a combined $100 million annually, the Republicans said.

Republicans are also proposing the "Fix Delaware Now Initiative" (FDNI) -- $54.2 million in one-time spending aimed at cleaning up backlogs of public infrastructure projects that have lingered the last three years. 

The projects range from drainage work to fixing the state's dams most in danger of failure. Republican lawmakers are also pledging to eliminate Delaware's status of being the only state in the lower 48 not to have a facility to serve its aging veterans.

Current estimates by the Delaware Financial Advisory Council (DEFAC) indicate for the coming budget year the state will enjoy enough prosperity to accommodate a reasonable budget increase, a permanent employee salary increase, and still leave enough to carry the two GOP initiatives.

Republicans also said their initiatives would leave enough money to finance many of the pending school construction projects through a combination of bonds and surplus cash.

"Our proposals total $154.2 million -- an amount very comfortably accommodated under current revenue estimates for FY2005," said State House Majority Leader Wayne Smith.

"Also, I need to point out that based on past performance, the state's emergence from recession should boost revenue estimates by an additional $60 million or more between January and the start of the new fiscal year in July. In short, we believe that what we're proposing is conservative, rational and sustainable."

Under the Growth & Opportunity Plan (GOP), the state's personal income tax rates would be rolled back by 6.3% across all tax brackets. The proposal would reduce the bottom rate from 2.2% to 2.06%. The top rate would drop from 5.95% to 5.58%.

The GOP also calls for cutting the state's gross receipts tax -- the tax charged to businesses on the basis of their total sales and payable whether or not the business is earning a profit -- by 30% across-the-board.

A final tax cut proposal seeks to eliminate the telecommunications tax on DSL data services. A similar proposal is pending in Congress, but it has not acted on the measure. If approved by Delaware lawmakers, repealing this tax would reduce annual state revenue between $200,000 and $400,000.

"Most of what we're proposing -- about two-thirds of our package -- is simply allowing people to keep their money in their pockets," said State House Majority Whip Biff Lee (41st District, R-Laurel). 

"We reluctantly passed tax increases last year because we believed they were needed.  Since the economy has rebounded very quickly over the fall and winter, we have an obligation to reduce taxes to keep state revenue in line with state needs."

Republicans pledged their support for a permanent raise for state employees.

Working under a hiring and wage freeze, our state employees have done a good job under difficult circumstances," said Speaker of the House Terry Spence.  "As the numbers firm up, I plan to introduce legislation later this year to give them the raise they deserve."

The FDNI also contains $7.5 million to implement dam safety projects on the 10 dams the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has identified as "high hazard" structures.

Rep. Spence said he is also pleased that the Fix Delaware Now Initiative includes $8.8 million to build a Veterans Home in the First State. Delaware is the only state in the lower 48 without such a facility.  The money represents the state's 35% share of the $25.2 million capital project.  The federal government will pick up the rest.

Committee to Take Up Human Cloning Bill

The House Health & Human Development Committee is set to take up a controversial bill on human cloning on Wednesday, Jan. 20.

The committee held a public hearing on Senate Bill 55 on Jan. 14 at Legislative Hall, but could not vote on the measure because a quorum was not present.

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.

The committee meeting will be held in the House Majority Caucus Room at Legislative Hall at 2:30 p.m. Committee proceedings are open to the public, but no testimony is expected to be taken prior to the vote. If the bill is released by the committee, it will be eligible for action by the full House of Representatives.

House Lawmakers Mark Historic Milestone

As the 142nd Delaware General Assembly began its 2004 session, lawmakers took time to mark the assembly's 300th anniversary.

The Delaware Assembly first met as an independent legislative body in 1704, following the separation of Delaware's legislature from that of Pennsylvania.  The split between the legislature of "the three lower counties" (constituting Delaware) from that which represented the rest of Pennsylvania ended an uneasy 22-year union.*

Disputes over equal representation, judicial appointments and tax revenue were symptomatic of the difficult relationship between the two regions. 

The ideological differences between Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania and the religiously diverse Delaware counties often drove a wedge into the decision-making process of a government serving both. 

One contentious issue centered on the refusal of pacifist Quakers to make any provision for the defense of Delaware's vulnerable coastline, despite the threat from pirates and privateers.

This danger was graphically illustrated with the sacking of Lewes in 1698.

Eventually, both Pennsylvania and Delaware legislators embraced separation.  The Delaware Assembly met for the first time in New Castle in November 1704.  The 12 member body, which grew to 18 the following year, consisted of four members from each county.

"But for our relative lack of Quakers and long, vulnerable coastline, we would be part of one of our country's 49 states and look to Harrisburg as the arena for self-government," said House Majority Leader Wayne Smith.

"The formation of Delaware's first Assembly illustrated the axiom ‘that all politics are local,' " said Dr. Peter Lillback, the executive director of the Providence Forum. The non-profit group conducts public education efforts focusing on early American history.  Dr. Lillback addressed the State House of Representatives as part of their anniversary recognition.

Dr. Lillback said the separation allowed Delaware to firmly establish its own identity, which was quite different from that of neighboring Pennsylvania.  While diverse -- Delaware had been inhabited by Swedes, Dutch and Finns for decades prior to William Penn's land grant -- the population of "the three lower counties" was small in comparison to Pennsylvania.

"Delaware's story is unique because its small size made its legislators fearful that their interests could be overwhelmed," Dr. Lillback said.  "After Delaware broke away, this experience stayed with them and played a large role in building protections into the U.S. Constitution for small states.  That's Delaware's gift to America, ensuring that smaller states have a voice in shaping national policy.  It all started with the Assembly of 1704."

"Three-hundred years of making our own name for ourselves as one of the great states of the Union proves the wisdom and foresight involved in the separation of 1704," Rep. Smith said.

* - It was not a total split. Pennsylvania and Delaware continued to share the same proprietor until 1776 -- the split entailed only the legislative functions.

New Bills in the House of Represenatives*

House Bill 317 (Sponsors: Rep. Hudson & Rep. Schwartzkopf) -- Under current Delaware law, persons under the age of 21 are admitted in any number of facilities where alcoholic beverages are served, i.e. restaurants, bowling alleys, sports stadiums, etc. Because some facilities that have a liquor license in Delaware are used for entertainment such as concerts, and fall under the definition and category of taprooms, alcohol cannot be served during an all-age entertainment event. This amendment would allow those under the age of 21 to attend events in a facility licensed to serve alcohol without compromising the integrity of Delaware's public safety standards regarding underage drinking. Those under the age of 21 will be required to be in a physically segregated area with separate entrances and exits. Status: Pending action in the House Tourism Committee.

House Bill 318 (Sponsors: Rep. Miro. Co-sponsor: Rep. Hocker) -- This bill would allow any Delawarean, 65 or older, owning a Delaware-registered motor vehicle to purchase a $45 lifetime permit to enter Delaware state parks or recreation areas. The one-time permit fee covers all vehicles owned by a permit holder, so long as the permit holder is the operator of the vehicle. Seniors not wishing to purchase a lifetime permit could buy the current $10 annual permit. Status: Pending action in the House Natural Resources and Environmental Management Committee.

House Bill 319 (Sponsors: Sen. Vaughn & Rep. Spence) -- Requested by the attorney general's office, this legislation would limit the dissemination of police, probation, and parole officer names and identification numbers. Under the bill, only designated criminal justice agencies would be allowed to access the information. Speaker of the House Terry Spence, a sponsor of the bill, says H.B. 319 balances the public's right to know against protecting the welfare of the men and women engaged in law enforcement.

House of Representatives' Action on Bills*

Senate Bill 63 (Sponsors: Sen. Marshall and Rep. Maier) -- This bill seeks to clarify that the Department of Health and Social Services may proceed with a court action to collect a civil money penalty assessed against a nursing facility. Status: Passed by the House (1/15). Sent to the governor.

Senate Bill 64 (Sponsors: Sens. Marshall & Blevins and Rep. Maier) -- This bill would grant the Department of Health and Social Services the authority to require a current employee of a nursing home or temporary agency, a home health agency or a self-employed healthcare giver to undergo a criminal history record check when there is a reasonable suspicion that such employee has been convicted of a disqualifying crime. Under the bill, the state would incur the cost of a criminal history check performed at the request of a private individual seeking to hire a self-employed healthcare giver. Status: Passed by the House (1/15). Sent to the governor.

House Bill 285 (Sponsor: State Rep. Ewing) -- This bill would impose a fee of one dollar on every new tire sold in the state. The money raised would be deposited in a Scrap Tire Cleanup Fund used to remediate scrap tire piles. The owners of property containing scrap tire piles would have one year from the time the bill was enacted to remove them. Under H.B. 285, officials could place a lien on properties the state is forced to clean up. Finally, the bill would require that state agencies consider the use of scrap tire material in the construction and engineering of publicly funded projects. Status: Was released from the House Natural Resources & Environmental Management Committee (1/14). Pending action by the full House.

House Bill 230 (Sponsor: Rep. Valihura) -- This bill seeks to ensure fairness at intersections where so-called "red light cameras" or other traffic light signal violation monitoring systems are used. H.B. 230 would require that the duration of the "yellow light" at such intersections be no less than the interval specified in the design manual developed by the Department of Transportation. "The City of Wilmington has implemented this program and while it has been success, there is always the possibility it could misused by shortening the duration of the yellow light to ensnare more motorists," said Rep. Bob Valihura (R-Talleyville), the bill's sponsor. "The legislation is designed to provide a standard that will be used statewide so that the traveling public will know what to expect. Motorists shouldn’t have to cope with traffic lights that have different durations in different jurisdictions." Status: Was released from the House Public Safety Committee (1/14). Pending action by the full House.

Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 174 (Sponsors: Sen. Cathy Cloutier and Rep. Joe Miro) -- School bus drivers would be barred from using a cell phone in most situations if S.S. 1 for S.B. 174 becomes law. The bill seeks to prohibit school bus drivers from talking on cell phones while transporting one or more children. If a school bus is not equipped with a radio, the bill would allow drivers to use cell phones to contact their dispatcher or the school transportation department. Violators would face a fine of between $50 and $100 for the first offense and a $100 to $200 fine and a six-month suspension of school bus driving privileges for subsequent offenses. Status: Was released from the House Public Safety Committee (1/14). Pending action by the full House.

Senate Bill 171 (Sponsors: Sen. Henry and Rep. Ewing) -- S.B. 171 would bring Delaware into compliance with the 2001 USA PATRIOT ACT, requiring the Department of Justice to first conduct a security threat background records check before a driver with a Commercial Driver's License can be issued, renew or transfer their hazardous materials endorsement. Status: Was released from the House Public Safety Committee (1/14). Pending action by the full House.

* Partial list, only includes action on selected bills.

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