Sussex County Delaware

Delaware Legislative
Week in Review
 
Week in Review, June 27, 2003 ...

H.B. 99 Clears House
by Three-Vote Margin
HB 99 Passes House by Slim Margin ...

A bill seeking to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment, public works contracting and public accommodations cleared the House of Representatives on Thursday evening by the slimmest of margins. House Bill 99 passed by a vote of 21 "yes", 18 "no", 1 absent, and 1 not voting.

Four amendments were tacked onto the legislation before its passage. Lead sponsor, State Rep. Bill Oberle (R-Beecher's Lot), said he believes the amendments do not impact the effectiveness of the bill. He said the additions only restate what's already in the Delaware Code and clarify the intent of the legislation. Rep. Oberle added that he believes the amendments may give some supporters of the anti-discrimination measure a better "comfort level".

One amendment to the bill makes it clear that the employment-at-will doctrine will not be impacted by the legislation.

"Employers will still be able to hire and fire as they see fit," Rep. Oberle said. "Employees will still be able to come and go as they see fit. No one will have a cause of action unless there is overt discrimination based on their sexual orientation, (just) as they would if they were discriminated against based on race, color, creed or gender."

Other amendments added to the bill (HA 2, 9, 12 & 13) specify that:

  • Religious groups are exempt from the legislation under most circumstances;

  • Protections provided under the bill would not apply to situations in which minors are present and sexual orientation advocated;

  • The legislation prohibits a court from ordering hiring goals based on sexual orientation;

  • Employers will continue to have a right to specify and enforce a dress code;

  • The legislation cannot impact existing Delaware law on marriage, adoption, or the teaching of human sexuality in public schools.

Sussex House members voting for the bill were: George Robert Quillen (R-30, Harrington) and Peter C. Schwartzkopf (D-14, Rehoboth Beach).

Sussex House members voting against the bill were Rep. John Atkins (R-41, Millsboro), Rep. Joe Booth (R-37, Georgetown), V. George Carey (R-36, Milford), Rep. G. Wallace Caulk (R-33, Frederica), Rep. Benjamin Ewing (R-35, Bridgeville), Rep. Tina Fallon (R-39, Seaford), Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-38, Ocean View), Rep. Clifford G. Lee (R-40, Laurel)

A bill similar to HB 99 also passed the House by a single vote in 2001, but that bill later died in the Senate Small Business Committee. Rep. Oberle says he believes the bill's chances are better this time around, although he says a lot will hinge on what Senate committee the bill is placed in.

Gov. Minner has been an outspoken supporter of the bill.

Primary Seat Belt Bill to Governor ...

The House of Representatives has sent a bill to Gov. Minner to make the non-use of seat belts a primary offense. The governor is expected to sign the measure.

House Bill 43 with Senate Amendment 1 passed by a vote of 27 "yes", six "no" and eight absent.

Currently, Delaware police can ticket motorists for not using their seat belts only after they have stopped their vehicles for another violation. HB 43 will change the law to make it a "primary offense," allowing police to pull over motorists for that infraction alone.

The legislation mandates seat belt use by the driver and passengers. Violations will constitute a civil offense that carries a $25 fine. No points will be assessed against drivers breaking the law.

Lead sponsor, State Rep. Bill Oberle, and other supporters of the measure say primary seat belt laws have been shown to increase seat belt use in other jurisdictions that have adopted them. That increase, they maintain, will translate into fewer deaths and injuries caused by vehicle accidents on Delaware's roads.

$2.44 Billion State Budget Signed ...

The General Assembly maintained what has become something of a tradition in recent years by sending the governor the state budget several days prior to the June 30 deadline. Gov. Minner signed the spending plan into law on Thursday, June 26, at Legislative Hall, shortly after the 227-page bill cleared both chambers.

The bill (House Bill 300) expends over $2.44 billion in General Fund money to state operations in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2004, which begins on July 1st. The new budget represents a spending increase of $52.5 million or 2.2 percent over last year's operating budget. State Rep. Joe DiPinto, the co-chair of the legislative committee that fashioned the budget, says one of the main drivers for the modest increase was the escalating cost of the state's share of Medicaid.

Of the $2.44 billion, $816.6 million is dedicated to paying for the day-to-day expenses of running Delaware's public schools -- about a third of all state spending (33.4 percent) -- and Rep. DiPinto says those costs have been increasing in recent years. "The population has continued to increase," he said. "We thought the number of kids going to our secondary schools would level off several years ago and that has not happened. It's continued to grow every year."

Additionally, nearly 27 percent of the state budget ($653.5 million) is earmarked for the Department of Health and Social Services. That represents an increase of almost $21 million over the current fiscal year.

Senate Bill 170 -- the state Bond Bill -- was also signed into law by the governor. The bill contains $576.6 million in funding for road, school and construction projects throughout the state.

House OKs New Presidential Primary Date ...

The House has sent a bill to Gov. Minner to change the date on which Delawareans will select presidential contenders. Senate Bill 54, passed by the House on Wednesday night, changes Delaware's Presidential Primary to the first Tuesday in February of a presidential election year.

Delaware legislators had earlier scheduled the presidential primary to be held on the Saturday following New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary. However, New Hampshire officials balked at having Delaware's primary within a week of their own and threatened to work against any presidential candidate that campaigned in the First State. The resulting pressure kept most presidential candidates out of Delaware.

The move to change the date of the Delaware Presidential Primary is supported by both the Republican and Democrat parties. Even with the change, State House Majority Leader Wayne Smith (R-Brandywine Hundred North) says Delaware will still have one of the earliest presidential primaries in the nation.

"We should get the full slate of candidates coming off New Hampshire and speeding to Delaware. It should elevate our ability to influence who becomes the next president of the United States, so it's pretty exciting stuff."

Rep. Smith says Delaware could become an important early indicator for presidential hopefuls and something of a national bellwether. "The attractive thing about Delaware is that its demography (and) its urban/rural mix more closely matches the nation as a whole than either Iowa or New Hampshire. So in terms of a microcosm of the national electorate, Delaware fits the bill pretty well."

Bill Would Allow Sunday Sales in Bars ...

A bill that would allow taverns and taprooms to serve alcoholic beverages on holidays and Sundays cleared the House on Tuesday.

House Bill 255, sponsored by State Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, passed by a vote of 30 "yes", 10 "no" and 1 not voting. The bill applies only to establishments with an "on-premise" liquor license.

Proponents argued the measure would help bars and taverns, who saw patronage drop after last November's enactment of the Clean Indoor Air Act, to recoup some lost revenue. Some also saw it as a logical extension of the recent change allowing package stores to operate on Sundays.

The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.

Bills Acted on in House ...
  • House Bill 225 w/ HA1 -- Sponsored by State Rep. Wally Caulk (R-Frederica), House Bill 225 is an attempt to address the root cause of a growing number of contentious disputes between county officials and farmers. Under Article II, Section 25 of the Delaware Constitution, land, buildings and other structures being used for agriculture are exempt from regulation under county and municipal zoning authority. The interpretation over what constitutes "agricultural uses" has created conflicts between farmers and county officials as farmers have diversified their operations by doing such things as building greenhouses, offering farm tours and opening roadside stands. Rep. Caulk says HB 225 is an attempt to remove these points of conflict by clearly defining in the Delaware Code what constitutes "agricultural use." HB 225 was approved by the House, but amended to clarify that commercial or business uses are controlled by appropriate regulations to ensure the basic health, safety and welfare of the public which would include such matters as adequate off-street parking, ingress and egress, visibility and noise control.
    (Status: Passed the House. Pending action in the Senate.)

  • House Bill 210 -- A bill that will redefine sentencing for a wide range of crimes is on its way to Gov. Minner to be signed into law. House Bill 210 calls for mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses to be decreased. It will also give judges and the Department of Corrections more flexibility over how and where some drug offenders, and those guilty of specific motor vehicle offenses, serve their time. Other mandatory minimums will be increased under the bill. Those committing first and second-degree burglary will face mandatory minimums for the first time. Supporters of the bill say the changes will allow the state to make the best use of its available prison space and will result in a more equitable sentencing system.

  • House Bill 66 (amended) -- Signed into law on June 24, this legislation eliminates the statute of limitations for serious sex crimes. The new law will not impact crimes on which the previous statute of limitations has already tolled. However, prime sponsor of the bill, State Rep. Pam Maier, maintains the new law will ensure that sexual offenses that occur in the future may be prosecuted regardless of when the crime was discovered or reported. The bill was amended to stipulate that sex crimes prosecuted under this act couldn't be based solely on a victim's repressed memory. Prosecution would require independent evidence that the crime occurred.

  • House Bill 293 -- State Rep. John Atkins (R-Millsboro) introduced this bill in response to the recent destruction of a bald eagle's nest near Millsboro. The bill seeks to add to the penalties for committing a Class A environmental misdemeanor by requiring any person convicted of the crime to make a $1,000 donation to the Delaware Nature Center or to serve a minimum of 200 hours of community service under the direction of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).
    (Status: Passed the House. Pending action in the Senate.)

  • House Bill 223 -- Under current law, when the funds in the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund drop below a certain threshold, unemployment benefits are lowered and the taxes charged to businesses to finance the fund are raised. That threshold was passed earlier this year. However, State Rep. Bill Oberle (R-Beecher's Lot), a member of a council that oversees the fund, said it is fiscally sound. He said the council believes it is not necessary to cut benefits or raise taxes at this time. HB 223 would maintain the maximum weekly benefit for unemployment insurance at its current $330. The bill would also preserve the current tax rate on employers.
    (Status: Passed the House. Pending action in the Senate.)

  • House Bill 227 -- Sponsored by State Rep. Tim Boulden (R-Newark), this bill directs the Delaware Dept. of Transportation (DelDOT) to create a task force to study taxi medallion and limousine certification issues. The task force will also be charged with developing a Taxi Medallion Plan to take effect July 1, 2004. In the interim, DelDOT will place a moratorium on the issuance of new taxi medallions and limousine certifications until June 30, 2004.
    (Status: Passed the House. Pending action in the Senate.)

    * Partial list, only includes action on selected bills.

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