By Patrick Jackson
The legislative season is still heating up in Dover, but veteran lobbyist Bob Byrd says the year is about to get interesting.
“With the two-week-in, two-week-out calendar they’ve been on, they haven’t gotten a lot done,” said Byrd. “And, so far, they’ve been focused on social issues. But when they come back [from Easter Break], that’s when things are going to get interesting. I’d stay tuned for May and June.”
Lawmakers will have one last break, in late May, when members of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee get together for their “mark up” bill drafting of Gov. John Carney’s $4.43 billion budget plan.
Bob Perkins, executive director of the Delaware Business Roundtable, says that’s something the business community will be watching closely.
“We think Gov. Carney has delivered a budget that is very responsible,” he said. “He hasn’t recommended spending everything … He wants to hold money in reserve to deal with uncertainty.”
Since September, the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council, the group of economic experts, academics and state officials charged with setting the state’s official revenue estimate, has bumped the First State’s bottom line up by more than $146 million. But Perkins says business is concerned that the growth rate
may not hold up.
A sharp downward swing could force the state to pare back programs or raise taxes and fees to cover the difference. Carney’s plan calls for holding money in reserve to soften those blows, but some lawmakers have questioned the idea.
They say the state, which has carried a Triple-A credit rating for almost 20 years, maintains a so-called “Rainy Day Fund” already. And, last year, a constitutional amendment for formalize Carney’s proposal for the additional budget stabilization fund came up short.
“Business likes sustainability and predictability,” Perkins said. “We can’t continue this roller-coaster ride of spending everything one year, then raising fees and taxes when things go bad the next.”
The budget notwithstanding, Perkins agreed with Byrd and the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce’s James DeChene that it’s mostly been quiet on the legislative front up to now but noted that, in the wheeling-and-dealing frenzy that is June in Legislative Hall, all that could change.
And that’s not to say that everything’s been quiet so far, either.
In January, House members introduced a bill axing a compromise included in last year’s minimum wage increase. The deal, which Byrd noted was needed to secure the votes required to OK the state’s capital spending bill, set up a so-called “training wage” for youth and new employees that is lower than the general minimum wage.
That is now on hold in a House committee, but introduction of the measure stirred up a hornet’s nest among Republicans, who are the minority in the House and Senate.
“They saw it as going back on the deal,” Byrd said. “But there are a lot of new Democratic members in both chambers and they might not have thought that deal applied to them.”
DeChene and Byrd say they see the lack of business legislation as a function of an almost record-setting influx of new members of which there are five in the Senate, including two who came over from the House, and 12 in the House.
“They’ve been doing their due diligence,” said DeChene, the chamber’s senior vice president for legislative affairs, “They’ve been learning their committees and, generally, how the place works.”
DeChene said the Senate’s passed one measure that’s been on its priority list as well as Carney’s, a move to set up a $10 million fund to help pay for economic development-related infrastructure projects.
That bill, sponsored by Sen. Stephanie Hansen, a Middletown Democrat, is now awaiting action in the House.
DeChene says the bill will give the state an important economic development tool.
“It gives us additional flexibility to help move needed projects forward,” he said.
The chamber also likes a bill, sponsored by Georgetown Republican Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, that would provide stipends of up to $9,000 to help pay for qualified certification programs. Those programs, such as computer coding boot camps, don’t give out degrees, but do qualify people to work in certain trades and technical fields.
“Those are areas where there are good-paying jobs and a real need for qualified people,” DeChene said. “We think this could be very helpful.”
The chamber has concerns about Stanton Democratic Sen. Jack Walsh’s measure requiring contractors to provide training for apprentices and journeymen on projects of $250,000 or more covered by Delaware’s prevailing wage laws. The bill excludes certain federally funded highway projects.
While the chamber supports job-training efforts, DeChene said the group has concerns about wording in the bill, which could bar employers who don’t meet its requirements from bidding on future projects. He said efforts are under way to find compromise wording that would clear up questions about issues, such as employees quitting or moving on to another job, before the bill comes up for a final vote in the House.
If that happens and the wording’s approved, the bill would have to return to the Senate for a vote because, unlike many other states and the federal government, Delaware doesn’t use a conference committee system to work out differences between the chambers on legislation.
And, DeChene says the chamber will be watching to see how the state moves on items, such as tighter greenhouse gas standards called for by 10-state the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, of which Delaware is a member.
“We’re concerned about climate change,” he said. “But we’re also concerned about what costs the changes will add for business and how it will affect our competitiveness.”