Delaware legislators outline priorities as new session begins. Healthcare, marijuana legalization and school district consolidation among other hot topics of discussion.

The Delaware General Assembly started its session this week and the top priority will be making sure the governor’s proposed budget is balanced.

Other hot topics include the marijuana legalization and consolidation of school districts.

“We have 62 legislators, and each have their own priorities going into session, but we need to remain laser-focused on the overarching priority, which is passing a balanced budget for Delaware,” said House majority leader Valerie Longhurst (D-Bear, 15th District).

Gov. John Carney will deliver his State of the State address at 2 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 18, in the House chambers of Legislative Hall in Dover.

Sometime around Jan. 25, Carney’s budget should be presented to the General Assembly.

During this session, legislators will be working to avoid last year’s dilemma when they had to cover a $400 million budget shortfall. The problem was solved, in part, by raising tobacco and alcohol taxes and cutting education and grants-in-aid.

The state now estimates a $30 million surplus this year and an $80 million surplus next fiscal year, said Mat Marshall, director of communications for the Senate Democrats.

During this session, the legislature will be looking at improving the budgetary process and cutting costs. House Joint Resolution 8 created an advisory panel to the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council, studying potential fiscal controls and budget smoothing mechanisms, according to Longhurst’s spokeswoman Jen Rini.

The panel will develop a report that analyzes revenue, appropriation limits and other issues, she said.

Paying for state healthcare costs has become expensive. Healthcare costs amount to one-quarter of Delaware’s budget, and the state’s spending is higher than the national average, Rini said.

House Joint Resolution 7 authorized the state Department of Health and Social Services to study healthcare spending and look at new ways to manage costs while ensuring access to quality healthcare.

Senate majority whip Nicole Poore (D-New Castle, 12th District) described last year’s budget process as a “rollercoaster” where the budget was in deficit and now it’s in surplus.

She isn’t sure if the cuts to grants-in-aid will be restored because the governor’s budget hasn’t been released and reviewed by the Joint Finance Committee.

“The budget will be first and foremost a priority,” Poore said.

Pot on the burner

The legalization of marijuana for recreational use returned to the front burner last week when the Adult Use Cannabis Task Force met.

A House bill created the task force of House and Senate members of both parties and other officials. The charge is to draw up rules and regulations if the General Assembly legalizes marijuana.

Task force members reviewed and suggested many regulations, including limiting the amount someone can buy in one store and prohibiting juveniles for entering stores which sell the drug.

Co-chair Rep. Helene Keeley (D-South Wilmington, 3rd District), said she would meet with people about their concerns and prepare a report to be reviewed at the task force’s next meeting Feb. 7. A final report is due by the end of February.

Keeley said she doesn’t believe cannabis is a dangerous drug, and she was more concerned about people driving who took opiates and prescription drugs.

During the task force’s meeting, the public was given a chance to comment.

Dave Foster, a former undercover police officer for the Drug Enforcement Agency/Delaware Task Force, said he favors legalization.

He said marijuana doesn’t “incite violence in the user,” but rather incites violence by drug dealers in turf battles.

But legalization could come to a grinding halt. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rolled back an Obama-era mandate that largely kept the federal government from interfering with state laws allowing marijuana use. Marijuana remains illegal on the federal level.

School consolidation

The School District Consolidation Task Force meets several times this month.

The House resolution which created the task force says consolidation may produce cost advantages through shared services such as transportation, information technology, security and food preparation.

Rep. Jeff Spiegelman (R-Clayton, 11th District), said he wants to see the task force report before taking a position.

“But, my initial reaction and thinking of the issue, I would oppose school district consolidation. I don’t believe it saves the kind of money people say it does. I don’t believe it will improve education,” he said.

As for the legalization of marijuana, Spiegelman said he doesn’t have a position on it and has been following the marijuana task force closely.

But he dislikes the current House legalization bill, including concerns about taxes, regulations, allocation of funds and other problems. He said he wouldn’t vote yes unless the bill is amended.