As the Delaware Assembly returned to Dover on Tuesday, January 1, Milford legislators looked toward the issues facing Delaware at the state level for the upcoming year. Items including raising the minimum wage, budget shortfalls and other important subject matters are expected to face the state’s leaders over the next few months.
One of the issues that Representative Harvey Kenton sees coming up during the session is road construction and other public projects. Kenton is concerned about borrowing to complete some of those projects as a bvudget shortfall has been discussed in Dover. Representative Kenton states that reports to the legislators of a projected revenue shortfall have been provided by Office of Management and Budget Director, Ann S. Visalli, who says that there have been unanticipated budget drivers, such as recent disclosures of a $25 million increase in costs due to the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
“There is an organized effort that is advocating increased borrowing to finance road construction and other public projects,” Representative Kenton said. “Some of these projects, like improvements to Route 113 and overpasses over Delaware 1, would impact our area in particular. Even though there is an argument to be made that interest rates are at historic lows, I have serious reservations about increasing Delaware’s debt load. Delaware’s high per capita debt of $6,429 is already the seventh highest in the nation. My bias is against adding to that burden.” The per capita debt estimate is provided by The Tax Foundation based on 2011 information.
Representative Kenton is a member of the Joint Finance Committee, and he says that the state may be facing a budget shortfall of between $150 million to $200 million for Fiscal Year 2015, which begins July 1. He also says that the actual shortfall amount is a “moving target” as the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council (DEFAC) delivers estimates six times per year.
Senator Gary Simpson also sees issues regarding the budget and economic development as important discussions that could affect the citizens of Milford.
“Last year, we saw legislation that focused on contentious social issues and some say those were at the expense of economic and job growth,” Senator Simpson said. “This year, I see proposals presented that will focus more on growing our economy. Although I still expect some contentious social issues in the upcoming session, including gun rights, septic regulations and minimum wage, I am hoping that our focus will be more on our economy and less on the social aspects of government.”
Representative Jack Peterman agrees with Senator Simpson and expects that a measure to raise the state minimum wage by a dollar an hour could be debated this month.
“The bill, Senate Bill 6, would immediately increase minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $7.75, and in January 2015, would raise the amount to $8.25,” Representative Peterman said. “It has already cleared the Senate, and is pending action in a House Committee whose chair has indicated he wants it released for a vote within the next several weeks. For any employer in Milford or any other city in the state, this is a significant issue. Not only does it have the potential to increase costs for business owners employing minimum wage earners, it has the potential to inflate the entire wage scale for experienced workers already earning in excess of minimum wage.”
Representative Peterman said that this could present significant problems for employers already struggling with a soft recovery and could increase costs under Workers’ Compensation and Unemployment as well. He does agree with Senator Simpson, however, that job growth should be the most pressing issue the legislators discuss.
Transportation challenges are one area where residents of Milford, as well as other areas of Sussex County, are looking at legislators for assistance. Public transportation in Milford is virtually non-existent, and recent reports from the state’s public transit system, DART, indicate a reduction in service rather than an increase for Sussex County. Representative Kenton says he sees that as a problem.
“The state’s public transit service is proposing a new plan to expand fixed route bus service, mostly in New Castle County, increase fairs and scale back Delaware’s Para-Transit, which services our handicapped community,” Representative Kenton said. “This could create significant issues downstate where there is more area and fewer fixed routes serving residents. With the first phase of the plan set to take effect his month, I expect the General Assembly will likely review this issue. Based on some of the feedback I have received from constituents and colleagues, I would not be surprised to see legislation introduced.”
Representative Peterman sees the budget shortfall as a challenge to adding public transportation downstate. “I do not expect to see any other significant improvements to downstate public transit this year,” Representative Peterman said. “With the state facing an expected budget shortfall, it seems likely there will not be enough resources to expand the service further.”
Representative Peterman said that DART’s operational expenses have increased nearly 59 percent over the past ten years, and that many public transit systems operate at a deficit. According to reports from the Delaware Transit Corporation, which runs all DART transportation in the state, labor costs over the past two decades have risen 73 percent, and although only just under eight percent of the public transportation ridership is made up of people with disabilities, paratransit services account for 45.4 percent of the budget.
All three legislators hope to see political leaders in Delaware, as well as Washington, work harder to bring both sides of the aisle together and lay aside partisan politics to do the work of the people this year. Senator Simpson saw partisanship as something that kept important decisions from being made in the last legislative session.
“As we head back to Legislative Hall, I am reminded of a quote by John Wesley, an Evangelist and founder of the Methodist religion,” said Senator Gary Simpson. “The quote is familiar to most everyone, but is sometimes missing in public discourse, perhaps especially in modern day politics. It says ‘Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.’ These words are particularly meaningful as we look at what has been happening in Washington and even in our own state during the past few years.”
Senator Simpson questions whether the legislators, both in Delaware and in Washington, are truly doing “all the good they can” when extreme groups in both parties attempt to gain control and his hope is that, as the Leader of the Minority Caucus, he can promote a “laying down of the gloves” in an effort to solve problems and work under civil discourse rather than contention.
On Thursday, January 23 at 2 pm, Governor Markell will deliver his 2014 State of the State Address in the House Chamber of Legislative Hall in Dover to both the Delaware State Senate and Delaware House of Representatives.