Delaware's General Assembly is facing new issues -- and some old -- during its 150th session

It’s a busy year for state lawmakers as they are poised to tackle plenty of new legislation and may revive bills that didn’t make it through the last session.

They’re also scheduled to vote on an amendment to the state constitution.

Work for the 150th General Assembly began weeks before the first gavel fell Tuesday. Nine bills were prefiled Dec. 13 in the House of Representatives, affecting everything from school and property taxes to changing the hours of school board elections and referendums to creating new personal income tax brackets.

Other legislation expected to get a second look includes reinstating the death penalty and an End of Life Options Act, which would allow the terminally ill to end their own lives.

One of the first items on the docket is an effort by Majority Leader Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, that would add an equal rights amendment to the constitution. The language is straightforward: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.”

HB 1 has been sponsored by all 15 women in the General Assembly and 23 of their male colleagues.

An initial attempt failed during the 149th General Assembly but was recalled and in June 2018 passed both houses on the second try. In Delaware, an amendment must pass both houses in two consecutive General Assembly sessions. If approved, it goes into effect immediately and does not require the governor’s signature.

“With this legislation, the state is saying that we value equality, and we value a vibrant Delaware where men and women are on an even playing field,” Longhurst said in a statement introducing the legislation. “We are saying to our young girls that your opportunities to succeed are not limited.”

Delaware was one of the first states to approve a proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1972, but the bill failed to be ratified by the necessary number of state legislatures.

Instead, 24 states have incorporated equal rights or similar language in their constitutions.  The first was California in 1879. 

The budget

As in years past, the budget is a top priority. Usually, the budget is based on an estimate of future tax receipts.

Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown, said the fiscal year 2018/2019 spending plan provided much-needed cash for one-time infrastructure improvements while limiting budget growth and putting some money into a reserve account.

Legislators need to continue on that path, he said.

“We cannot afford to kick the can down the road, so my priority in the 150th General Assembly will be to continue to look for cost-saving, strategic one-time investments and usher prudent budgeting practices such as setting aside additional funding for future endeavors,” he said.

Minority Whip Rep. Timothy D. Dukes, R-Laurel, has also championed reforms in the budgeting process. He too endorses budget smoothing.

“The idea was to create a savings account so when we have difficult times financially in the state we can go back to this savings account,” he said.

“Our caucus’ concern is to be fiscally responsive to our constituents in the state and that we do things that are proper and right,” Dukes said. “One of those is fiscal spending and looking at the priorities, but also making sure we set money aside.”

Dukes does not want to see a return to multi-million dollar deficits which, he said, fell on the backs of state workers who found their pay frozen to save money.

Smoother budgeting

Right now it appears lawmakers will have increased revenue to work with this year.

In December, the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council estimated growth in tax collections would provide an additional $66 million above its September estimate. Some of that will be set aside as a hedge against future deficits under a June 30 executive order signed by Gov. John Carney.

“As every Delaware family knows, you’re supposed to save some of your money during the good times so you can make it through when money gets tight,” Carney said. “It’ll even things out so when a bad economy comes along we won’t see massive cuts in services or dramatic tax hikes.”

Carney issued the order after a bill to revise the state constitution along the same lines died in the House.

Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, criticized Carney’s Democratic colleagues for opposing the amendment.

“I would have loved a year ago to get some sort of budget smoothing amendment passed,” he said. In his opinion, Democrats opposed the amendment as it would have eliminated what he considers one of their favorite tactics: using a budget shortfall to justify raising income taxes.

“Another reason was because it was former state Treasurer and Republican] Ken Simpler’s idea,” Spiegelman said. “In an election year, they certainly could not allow that to pass.”

Simpler was defeated for re-election in November.

“It was extraordinary to me that they would play such harsh political games with the good of the state,” Spiegelman said. “If the majority party wants to run that amendment now that Ken Simpler is no longer in the picture, that would be the most important thing we could pass in the 150th General Assembly.”

Addressing opioids

Efforts to tackle the ongoing opiate problem will be under scrutiny by Sen. Stephanie Hansen, D-Middletown.

In April 2018, Hansen introduced a bill that, among other requirements, would levy a fee on prescription opioid manufacturers. The legislation never came up for a vote in the Senate and expired at the end of the session. Hansen said she plans to revive the bill this year.

“I’m hoping to introduce my opiate impact fee legislation early this session so that funds from the fee can accumulate for opiate addiction services such as inpatient and outpatient treatment programs and sober living facilities, addiction research and prevention,” she said.

That’s not all

Beyond state finances, Dukes will continue efforts to reform Delaware’s child support system with a bill that failed to get a House vote last session. It would require that an individual awarded money from a personal injury settlement be current in his or her child support payments before collecting.

“There’s already a similar law about lottery and casino winnings,” Dukes said.

Spiegelman wants to reform regulations on outdoor sporting activities.

“We’ve had some great success in the last couple of years modernizing Delaware’s hunting and fishing laws, but that work is not done,” he said. There are some things last year we ran out of time on or issues we’d still like to see done.”

Another Hansen bill would have strengthened shelter requirements for dogs kept outside. It passed the Senate but died in the House Appropriations Committee. She plans to reintroduce that.

Others include a bill to establish standards for school building repairs.

“Substantive legislation often takes more than one year to get through the General Assembly, so at any particular time throughout the year, there is legislation addressing many important issues at various points in the research and drafting pipeline,” she said.

Citizens’ ideas

Across the state, residents would like to draw attention to additional matters.

Dustin Yoder of Lincoln wants action to ensure ideas in last year’s Regulation 225 are never implemented. Initially touted by Carney and Secretary of Education Susan Bunting as a means of dealing with sexual and gender discrimination in schools, it has drawn the ire of the Yoder family and thousands of others.

“The short version is that it would allow children to self-identify their sex and race without parental notification or involvement,” Yoder said. “It would allow participation on sports teams of choice regardless of gender.”

In August, Bunting put the brakes on the proposal, citing among other things more than 2,900 emails opposing the idea. The Department of Education listed only eight emails in favor. In his missive to Bunting, Yoder wrote, “I do not want the government, through the school system, instructing my children about gender fluidity.”

In Wilmington, Janyce Colmery wants to see efforts to protect the Second Amendment and a way to rein in rising taxes. She’s interested in Hansen’s efforts to curb animal abuse. She also supports a long-proposed plan to reduce the number of school districts.

Elizabeth Kramarck of Townsend said she and her husband, John, are looking for movement on green environmental issues, including financial incentives, such as low-interest loans, to encourage people to install solar panels or wind energy, funding to encourage clean water and a ban on offshore drilling and seismic testing.

“We were very happy to hear a group of nine bipartisan governors, including ours, committed to developing a regional policy that will reduce emissions from transportation while funding much-needed solutions to build a clean, equitable, modern transportation future,” she said.