By Terry Rogers
With the start of the new year, state legislators begin looking at what is facing them in the upcoming year. According to legislators who represent the Milford area, funding and the state’s infrastructure will be their main priority for 2016.
“As a member of the Joint Finance Committee, I can foresee that money issues will be a top concern for us this year,” said Representative Harvey Kenton. “Revenue estimates last month showed a significant uptick in what the state could expect in the current and upcoming fiscal years. In fact, the estimates were so good, that the surge all but eliminated an expected budget shortfall. The bad news is that this estimate was made before the DuPont layoffs and plans for a merger were announced. We have four more revenue estimates and the entire second half of the 148th General Assembly before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1st. A lot can happen in six months and it usually does.”
Representative Jack Peterman said that a task force formed to look at ways the state can cut expenses will deliver a report in January and that the state faces a large deficit with regard to healthcare costs for state employees and retirees. Representative Peterman also commented that the DuPont merger would have a tremendous impact on the state.
Senator Gary Simpson said that the DuPont merger would result in the elimination of 1,700 high-paying jobs in the state. He said that these layoffs could result in a multiplier effect on the economy and that the loss of tax revenue from the DuPont Company could severely impact Delaware’s budget.
“Other related issues will revolve around the revenue needed to maintain our highways and bridges, how to finance school construction and how to pay for the maintenance and building of our aging water and sewer systems,” Senator Simpson said. “These are just a few of the cost drivers facing the legislature in the upcoming year, and with an expected decrease in revenue, there will always be those that see an easy fix by just increasing the tax burden on Delaware citizens rather than an attempt to make government more efficient.”
School funding is another issue that legislators will face in the upcoming year. Senator Simpson said that, although some feel the referendum process required of districts when they are seeking additional funding or a new school building is unfair, there was no effort to change this process. Representative Kenton said that the citizens value their role in the tax referendum process and he did not anticipate the legislature changing that at any time.
“There has been some discussion to create standardized plans for elementary, middle and high schools that could be modestly modified to meet the needs of each district,” Representative Peterman said. “Such an approach would reduce design costs and benefit from economies-of-scale by coordinating the purchase of materials for similar projects begin built in different districts. Under such an initiative, districts using the standardized designs would get additional state assistance, where districts choosing to forego the cost-saving protocol would get less. Referendums would still exist, but a district using a standardized design might have an easier time selling the proposal to residents.”
Senator Simpson said that he felt as if the formula used to provide equalization funding to public school districts needed to be reviewed as it has been in place for decades. Senator Simpson said that it was important to review the formula to be sure that it still meets the mandate of equality in funding.
In the past year, attention has been focused on funding for Sussex Technical School District. Earlier this year, the legislature voted to increase funding for the school to the dismay of some Milford residents. Representative Kenton said that the increase was modest and would end July 1, 2017. He said that the increase was a measured and fair response to the district’s plan to continue increasing enrollment and raise taxes by more than 114 percent over the next six years.
“Sussex Tech has been a successful school for some time and has a reputation for delivering a fine educational experience,” Representative Peterman said. “However, in years past, Sussex Tech has been able to pick from the best students coming from other districts. Under a reform enacted by the General Assembly last year, Sussex Tech is no longer allowed to do this. Now, any freshman applicant who is eligible for promotion to the ninth grade must stand on equal opportunity to be selected for enrollment through a lottery.”
None of the Milford-area legislators saw any measures that would increase the availability of public transportation in the Milford area. Representative Kenton said that lack of leadership continues to plague the system, especially in rural areas and he did not see DART looking to expand serve that would need heavy subsidies, especially with the state economy on uncertain ground.
“Other issues I see coming up during this legislative session include “right to work,” prevailing wage, the death penalty, “end of life”, ending the death tax and various gun control measures,” Senator Simpson said. “We will also look at student assessments, water tax increases, sex trafficking, electric vehicle fees and law enforcement sentencing. In all it appears to be a very lively legislative year and I am ready to get at it.”