By Terry Rogers
With legislators returning to the Legislative Hall on January 9, local leaders say that there will be several controversial topics facing them as the subject of marijuana legalization comes to the floor and the state possibly facing another deficit. Senator Gary Simpson along with Representatives Harvey Kenton and Charles Postles say that they are prepared for whatever faces them in the upcoming year.
“Last year, the legislature cut Grants-in-Aid funding by 20 percent as part of a plan to balance the budget,” Representative Postles said. “I would like to see that funding restored in the new fiscal year that starts July 1. It will help many of the non-profits, like Milford Senior Center and the Carlisle Fire Company, who receive state funds to help them provide vital services to our community.”
In early November, it was announced that a marijuana growing facility would be located in Milford. Currently, only medical marijuana is legal in Delaware, but there has been discussion at the legislative level of making recreational marijuana use legal for adults.
“I think it is very likely we will see legislation put forward this Legislative Session that would legalize marijuana,” Senator Simpson said. “Although it will see a healthy and spirited debate, in the end, I do not see it passing.” Representative Postles said that House Bill 110 is pending action on the House ready list. He does not see it having enough support to clear the House, but says that is speculation on his part. He said that he will not vote for passage of the bill. Representative Kenton said that the bill will likely come up for vote early in the session, but he also believes it faces an uncertain future. He said that even in the unlikely event both the House and Senate pass the bill, Governor John Carney has expressed opposition to the law.
School District consolidation is another controversial subject that the legislators may face in the upcoming year. Senator Simpson said that, although he has supported school consolidation in the past, he does not believe it will happen yet. He believes there are a number of negative forces working against it, most notably, leveling-up salaries throughout the state. He does see the possibility of consolidating the vocational-technical districts on a statewide basis which would be a good test to see if there are any savings or benefits that could come from consolidation.
“I voted for a measure that established the task force, mainly to get the facts needed to make a decision,” Representative Kenton said. “Constituents have been telling me for many years that we should be considering this. The task force will, hopefully, provide the facts we need to determine if reducing the number of Delaware’s public school districts is both efficient and desirable. Public policy decisions, especially a decision of this nature, should be fact-driven. We need to know if consolidation would save money. If a larger school district would be a more effective district. What would a consolidated district look like? How might it impact the quality of education and disposition of schools within the consolidated district. Right now, all we have are questions. I am looking to the task force to provide some answers before I draw any conclusions.”
Representative Postles believes there is opportunity for consolidation, but that it needs to be done with partners that make sense. He said that there needs to be a review of demographics, tax bases and teacher contracts to be sure they are compatible. He hopes that a recommendation by the Task Force to reduce Delaware’s 19 school districts suggests ways to save money through the use of shared services and purchases. He also said that consolidation does not need to be by county as it is in other states, including Maryland. Representative Postles said that if the task force produces a plan based on county, it will fail.
“In Delaware, especially in New Castle and Sussex counties, there are some stark, contrasting differences between school districts within the same county that would make consolidation difficult and potentially more expensive than the status quo.”
School funding is another issue that all three legislators say needs to be reviewed. Senator Simpson said that he doesn’t hear much about how schools are being funded, but he hears a lot about inequality in funding. Since property taxes are very disparate throughout the state, he states that revenue that a poor district can raise from a school property tax increase versus what a rich district can raise from the same increase indicates the formula used is not in line with what was intended 50 years ago, when put into place.
“School funding is a big issue,” Representative Kenton said. “We have a school equalization formula that is intended to mitigate the differences between school districts, but it s flawed and obsolete. Reform is needed in this area and I do expect some proposals to surface. However, it is a complicated issue, with many competing interests and stakeholders. In short, it will be a tough nut to crack.” Representative Postles said that there is no doubt the way Delaware funds public schools is broken. He believes part of the problem is outdated property assessments, pointing out that New Castle has not conducted an assessment since 1983, Kent County in 1987 and Sussex County in 1974.
Representative Postles also pointed out that schools are collectively owed tens-of-millions of dollars by people and businesses who have not met their tax obligations, but districts have no direct mechanism for collecting this debt. Additionally, the state pays for about 70 percent of school operations and construction, but the total amount of money per student still varies widely from district to district. Another controversial proposal at the state level was the School District Discrimination Regulation that was requested by Governor Carney and drafted by a working group on behalf of the state Department of Education. Although the General Assembly had no role in the regulatory process, Representative Kenton joined many of his colleagues in expressing opposition to the rule during the public comment period.
“I have repeatedly and publicly stated that this is bad public policy,” Representative Postles said. “Allowing a student of any age to self-declare their race and gender, without the knowledge and participation of his or her parents, is an invasive overreach of governmental authority. It also opens school districts to the very real possibility of costly litigation. This proposal is temporarily in a holding pattern. DOE will revisit the issue next month as they review the more than 11,000 comments that were offered by citizens on the proposed rule.”
Although there have been reports that Delaware could face a budget deficit in 2018, Representative Kenton, who serves on the Joint Finance Committee, said that the most recent revenue forecast as of December 18 showed a total surplus of about $100 million. However, historically, December projections are not effective in predicting how the year ends. Representative Postles said that there are always members of the legislature who are looking at spending more money. He pointed to a group led by Attorney General Matt Denn who wanted to spend $55 million for a long list of well-intentioned, worthy causes. Representative Postles said that if the state ends the year with a surplus, he will fight to keep the legislators from spending all of it. He is in favor of adopting a proposal made by State Treasurer Ken Simpler to start a fund to save money that could be tapped to smooth out year-to-year fluctuations.
“There has been talk about the state facing another deficit, probably stemming from those legislators who favor tax increases,” Senator Simpson said. “They should keep in mind that taxes were increased last year by approximately $200 million, or about 5 percent, of the total state budget. That budget ranked Delaware as the 4th most expensive government in the United States as measured on a per-capita basis. We can no longer tax our way to prosperity. Rather, we should be laser-focused on reining in the unsustainable, long-term growth of State spending.”
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