State House Week in Review
Mar 26, 2005, 21:03

Following is the Week in Review for the Delaware House of Representatives for the week ending Friday, March 25, 2005:

Bill Barring Sexual Orientation Discrimination Heads to Senate

Legislation seeking to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation has cleared the Delaware State House of Representatives. House Substitute 1 for House Bill 36 passed by a vote of 22 “yes,” 18 “no,” and one absent on Thursday, March 24, 2005.

This is the third time legislation of this type has been approved by the Republican-controlled State House. Designated House Bill 99 in the 141st and 142nd Generall Assembly sessions, the previous versions of the bill passed the House but died in the Senate when the leadership of that chamber refused to bring either measure to the floor for a vote. Both bills were bottled up in committee.

Like the previous incarnations of the bill, HS 1 for HB 36 would bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, public works contracting, public accommodations, housing and insurance. Religious groups would be largely exempt from the measure.

In contrast to its predecessors, House Bill 36 contains more language defining its legislative scope and intent. Among the clarifications in House Bill 36 is that it would not create any hiring preferences or quotas; that it would not permit inappropriate dress or behavior in the workplace; and that it would not require an employer to provide domestic partner benefits. The bill would also not apply to properties that “are owner-occupied and contain no more than four rental units;” nor to “tourist houses with fewer than 10 rental units.”

Before HS 1 for HB 36 won the approval of House lawmakers, six amendments were tacked onto the bill. The most significant of these changed the description of “sexual orientation” contained in the original bill, which defined it as “heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual orientation, whether real or perceived."

The amendment struck the language “real or perceived,” which some critics of the bill said was overly broad and potentially problematic. The bill was also amended to specify that it would not impact on sections of Delaware law dealing with “marriage, adoption or the teaching of human sexuality in public schools.”

The lead sponsor of HS 1 for HB 36, State Rep. William Oberle (R-Beechers Lot), said HS1 to HB 36 addresses many of the objections opponents raised to the previous two versions of the legislation. “At least we’ve taken away the arguments they’ve presented. That does not suggest that I’m foolish enough to think that there will still not be opposition around this bill, but I think it’s going to be more difficult for it to be held in committee.”

Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner has repeatedly expressed her strong support for the legislation, but has been unable to get the Democratic-controlled Senate to take up the measure.

Rep. Oberle says he plans to work with the governor to try to convince the Senate leadership to allow a vote on the bill. “If in fact we are successful in allowing that process to move forward, there is not one single doubt in my mind that House Substitute 1 for House Bill 36 will pass. The votes are there, it is just whether the democratic process is going to be allowed to unfold.”

Rep. Oberle said Delaware is not breaking new ground, noting that many other political jurisdictions and private employers have adopted positions similar to that expressed by HS1 for HB 36.

Teen Drivers May Have to Wait Longer to Get Behind the Wheel

Teenagers eagerly anticipating their drivers’ licenses would have to wait a little longer under one new proposal. The measure is one part of a legislative package aimed at protecting the motoring public from teen drivers and teen drivers from themselves.

The four bills recently unveiled by State House lawmakers were sparked by a rash of teen fatalities on Delaware’s roads. Since November, there have been 11 fatal crashes involving teenage drivers, killing 16 children, teenagers and young adults. The need for a legislative response was bolstered by the release of findings from the National Institutes of Health that showed that the part of the brain responsible to weighing risks and controlling impulsive behavior is not fully developed in teenagers.

Chief among the four new bills is one sponsored by State House Majority Leader Wayne Smith (R-Brandywine Hundred North) that would raise the minimum driving age to 17. Currently, teenagers can enter Delaware’s graduated driver licensing program at 15-years, 10-months old. “Scientists are finding mounting evidence that our youngest drivers may not be fully equipped to … exercise the kind of mature judgment necessary for safely operating a motor vehicle,” Rep. Smith said.

Another part of the package seeks to restrict who young drivers could transport during the late night and early morning hours. Under the bill sponsored by State Rep. Robert J. Valihura (R-Delaware North), no one under the age of 17 would be permitted to carry any passengers -- other than members of his or her immediate family or his or her adult supervisor -- between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Rep. Valihura said Sen. Cathy Cloutier (R-Heatherbrooke) and he proposed a similar bill last year, but that it failed to win approval. “We believe that this won’t pose a burden on anyone. … I’m hopeful that this legislation will receive favorable consideration this year.”

Other bills in the package include:

  • Legislation that would allow the Division of Motor Vehicles to establish a “Cinderella Point System” for traffic violations committed by drivers under the age of 22. The system would lower the threshold needed to suspend the licenses of youthful violators. (Lead sponsors: Reps. Hudson and Smith.

  • A measure that would establish a searchable database on the state’s website, allowing individuals to check the driving records of drivers under the age of 26. Rep. Smith said such a database would give parents a credible basis for making judgments about the people transporting their children. (Lead sponsor: Rep. Smith)

Representatives Concerned Over Deer Control Efforts

While many Delawareans decry the loss of open space to new residential development, the state’s white-tailed deer population doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, white-tailed deer are thriving and that’s posing a problem for everyone from homeowners in northern New Castle County to farmers in lower Sussex.

"The white-tailed deer is an animal of edge habitat,” said Ken Reynolds, an environmental program manager with the Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife.

Reynolds spoke at a recent hearing of the House Natural Resources and Environmental Management Committee in Dover. Committee chair, State Rep. Joe Booth (R-Georgetown/Lewes), asked wildlife officials for a briefing on proposals to control the state’s burgeoning deer population.

"Edge habitat,” the type found where fields meet wooded areas, is created by development and farming. It also challenges efforts to manage the deer population by creating what Mr. Reynolds calls “mini refuges” for deer. Safety regulations and public opinion largely prevent hunters from pursuing deer near occupied homes. With no predators to curtail their numbers, other than cars, deer are being fruitful and multiplying.

Part of the problem is that deer breed like rabbits. According to Chuck Fergus with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, most adult female deer are bred each year. Typically, mature does (2.5 years and older) produce twins and triplets are not uncommon. Under the right conditions, the deer population could double each year.

Delaware deer hunters have been taking a growing number of deer. In 1988-89, hunters tagged 3,998 animals. The harvest topped 10,000 for the first time in 1998-99 and has remained above that milestone every season since then. Even so, hunters have seemingly not been able to keep pace with the prolific white-tails.

All of this production comes at the price of a voracious appetite. Reynolds says each deer eats about 2,000 pounds of plant material per year, much of it agricultural. With a statewide population estimated at 30,000 animals, Delaware’s deer collectively munch 60 million pounds annually. While deer enjoy browsing many farm crops, their eclectic palates also favor plants from tulips to azaleas – a fact which many suburban homeowners know only too well.

"Some farmers are telling me that they’re losing hundreds of bushels of soybeans and corn annually to deer and that can add up to significant losses for operations that can’t afford to take those kinds of hits,” said State Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-Ocean View), whose district includes many farms in southeast Sussex County.

"The farmers I’ve spoken with are losing patience with efforts to control the deer population,” Rep. Hocker said. “They’ve been telling me that they’re seeing more deer now than they did at this time last year.”

Rep. Hocker said he’d like to see wildlife managers use airborne infrared imagery to pinpoint where deer numbers are too great for the local environment to support. The technology has been used successfully in other states, like Pennsylvania, to conduct accurate deer surveys.

Rep. Hocker said once we know where the problem areas are, they could be targeted for intensive hunting to reduce deer numbers to sustainable levels. For hunters who wanted to take part in the hunts, but had no desire for the deer, he said he’d support using state money to pay for transporting and processing the animals, donating the meat to community organizations that feed the needy.

One option wildlife officials are planning to implement later this year is establishing a Delaware Master Hunter program. Under the program, hunters would complete coursework in wildlife biology, conservation, landowner relations and other topics.

Wildlife officials say there are many private landowners whose property harbors large numbers of deer but are leery of opening their land to the general hunting public. They say these people appear more willing to grant access to master hunters, who by virtue of having completed the supplementary training, have demonstrated a commitment to safe, responsible conduct.

Since 85 percent of the land in the First State is privately owned, wildlife officials say getting hunters into this property is essential to successfully managing the deer population. Pat Emory, director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife, says the program could be training its first class as early as this summer.

Other options being considered include breaking the state into many wildlife management areas, allowing officials to tailor deer management plans to match local conditions.

In the meantime, the Delaware Department of Agriculture is working with the University of Delaware on a new state program to prevent crop losses to deer. Under the plan, farmers would plant buffer crops around their fields to give the deer an alternative menu. To be effective, the deer need to find the buffer strips more attractive than the field crops.

To answer that key question, the university is researching what plants the deer find appealing. “Different plants attract deer at different times of the season,” said Sec. of Agriculture Mike Scuse.

General Assembly Could Meet in Lewes in 2006

Shortly after Dutch colonists established a whaling operation on the site of what is now the City of Lewes in 1631, they were annihilated by the indigenous population. Organizers of the city’s year-long 375th anniversary celebration are hoping for a better outcome and the General Assembly may figure prominently into their plans.

"It’s the first city of the First State and next year they’re planning special events throughout the year to mark the city’s milestone anniversary,” said State Rep. Joe Booth (R-Georgetown/Lewes). “One of the events they’re exploring is to have the Delaware General Assembly meet in Lewes.”

Rep. Booth said the proposal may prove too difficult to accomplish, but he says officials in both General Assembly chambers have expressed early enthusiasm and support for the idea.

State House Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith (R-Brandywine Hundred North), considered the General Assembly’s leading authority on Delaware’s past, says meeting in Lewes would be historically appropriate.

"Delaware members of the then-Pennsylvania legislature sitting in Lewes in 1701 started a ruckus that led to our being granted a separate General Assembly by the Penn family.  It would be fitting to honor their memory by again sitting in Delaware's first town as a legislative body."

Among the questions that remain to be addressed are whether the General Assembly can legally meet outside the capital, if lawmakers would conduct any official business during the event and where they would meet.

Rep. Booth said there has also been some discussion of having the state representatives and senators appear in clothing authentic to the period. “If we can pull this off, I think it’ll be an interesting and educational experience that’ll highlight our heritage and celebrate our history.”

The Lewes Historical Society is working on other special anniversary events including special concerts, a tall ship festival, flower festivals, visits from English and Dutch officials, and public history programs.

If the General Assembly is able to meet in Lewes, Rep. Booth said it will likely take place next April.

Bill to Strike Medicaid Prescription Restrictions Clears House

The House of Representatives has passed legislation that seeks to make significant changes in the way Medicaid recipients get and pay for prescription drugs.

The state Division of Social Services (DSS), which administers Medicaid, describes it as a health insurance program for low-income people who cannot afford medical care. The program is paid for with a mix of state and federal funding but is run by Delaware officials, who have been looking for ways to trim costs. Among the services provided under Medicaid are: doctor visits, hospital care, lab work, prescription drugs and substance abuse services.

House Bill 93, sponsored by Speaker of the House Terry Spence (R-Stratford) and State Rep. Pam Maier (R-Drummond Hill), would eliminate the current requirement for Medicaid recipients to pay a small fee (or co-pay) for the prescription drugs they receive through the program.

The prescription co-pay, which was instituted at the start of the year, varies between 50-cents and three-dollars per prescription, depending on the cost of the medication. “Right now the co-payment … is not real expensive, but when you’re looking at Medicaid patients who are unemployed, living on fixed incomes, it could cause a hardship,” Speaker Spence said.

HB 93 also seeks to prevent the state from implementing a “preferred drug list.” DSS officials had been looking to establish such a list in an effort to stem the growth of the Medicaid budget. Any drug not on the list would have required special approval and possibly a larger co-pay from Medicaid recipients.

Speaker Spence says the additional bureaucracy could delay access to needed drugs and increase costs to patients. He added that the estimated cost savings of $1.5 million isn’t worth jeopardizing the health of recipients. “There’s a concern by many doctors that if the Medicaid patient does not stay on the name brand that they’ve been on for many years that it could have an impact [on their health].”

Finally, if the bill is enacted, any future changes impacting the availability of prescription drugs through Medicaid would have to be approved by the General Assembly. Speaker Spence said this change would give the thousands of Delawareans using Medicaid better input on any substantial changes to their drug coverage.

The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.

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