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Interview with Gov. Carney: Environmental policy, guns and more

Delaware Public Media

Gov. John Carney delivered his State of the State address and unveiled his budget plan for Fiscal Year 2021in January, rolling out his priorities for the coming year in a variety of areas.

Gov. Carney recently visited the Delaware Public Media studios to talk a bit more in-depth about some of those priorities and other issues.  And we bring you more of that conversation this week - hitting topics ranging from clean water and guns to the budget and the death penalty.

Tom Byrne: I want to move on to the environment and we'll start with clean water you proposed putting fifty million dollars toward a Clean Water Trust Fund in this year's budget.  That’s added to previously allocated and federal funds leveraged. I think you said, that gives the state about a hundred million dollars to spend on various water infrastructure issues around the state. What do you say to those who said that that's still not enough, that for clean water we need more money?

Gov. John Carney: Well, to those who would say that's not enough, I would say they need to look at the needs that are out there and, you know, make an assessment as to whether it -- certainly on a short term basis -- it’s not the end, if that's the question.  By saying that it's not enough, it's not the end - I would agree with them, but to say that it's not enough in the short term is just wrong. We can't spend a hundred plus million dollars probably you know in the years that that I'll be governor.  So, it is a huge down payment to the requirements that we have out there, to the problems that we have out there.

I know the problem pretty well, having worked with the original task force that was established under Gov. Castle, believe it or not, to look at this question, particularly wastewater facilities in lower Delaware. And by the way, that a lot of the resources are going to flow to the lower part of the state because that's where the biggest need is, particularly with some of these remote communities out in rural areas of Sussex County that don't have access to public water or sewer and they have failing septic [systems] and they have contaminated wells. We are really going to have to lean into that to figure out solutions for those communities in particular, but this is a huge down payment.

Obviously, a lot of members of the General Assembly, Rep. Longhurst, the Speaker [Pete Schawartzkopf], State Sen. Townsend and many, many more, for him this is a big priority and it's been a priority for me is going back to my days working for New Castle County, so I'm excited about it frankly. I think we're going to get a lot of work done with it, it is not the end and it will leverage considerable federal money as well as you said, but it won't be the end for sure.

Byrne: Having said that, let me recast the question a little bit. Where this effort is kind of fallen down in the past was the effort was to tie it to some kind make a tax or fee to give you consistent ongoing funding for this. Is there a concern that doing it this way -- long term -- makes clean water kind of like open space and farmland preservation, where depending on what the budget situation is there's not funding for it - or it gets zeroed out to deal with a budget crisis. I guess the argument on the other side would be, shouldn’t clean water be more of a priority where there is a consistent persistent funding stream?

Gov. Carney: I would argue it is a priority, and in most parts of our state, there is a consistent funding stream and it basically is user fees.  We're not talking about abandoning user fees and making free water and free wastewater. That's just not the way it works. It's a utility. You pay for the amount that you use and you pay for the amount that you dispose of.

But in some cases, particularly rural areas, it is free right now. You know, they have a well.  They think it's free.  The water comes up and they don't pay an annual operating amount for that - same thing with their with their septic system. Now, they should be thinking about, well, the septic system, at some point, is going to, you know, meet its useful life and we’ll have to rebuild it or build another one and put money aside to do that. So, that's one of the things we're up against is just the reality that this is utility people pay in on an annual basis and probably two thirds of the state's population are already doing that. 

As a resident of the city Wilmington, I get a water bill and I get a sewer bill and now I get a drainage bill on a monthly basis or a quarterly basis, and so that's part of the revenue that we're talking about that will augment this hundred million dollar plus start.

And the other part is, and this is lost on most people, but fiscal management is one of my areas of knowledge and expertise as a former Secretary of Finance, we earned, the state earned, a AAA bond rating when I was in that position, working with Gov. Carper and the legislature and we've got really sound fiscal policies - one of which is we do not have a lot of dedicated revenue sources, Dedicated revenue sources of have gotten states in big trouble when the economy goes into the tank and revenues are lost in certain areas, but you're still required to take you know some portion of a revenue source and apply it to something else that might not be the highest priority when your revenue drops.  So that's one reason why I object to the dedicated revenues of either of a flush tax or a you know attachment to the property tax or whatever the proposal has been. Now, the flip side of that is and one of the reasons people want to have a revenue stream is so that they can borrow money against it. Well again, my argument there would be,  as a state we have AAA bond rating we borrow the money as efficiently as cheaply as any entity in the state, so if we need those resources we can borrow through our capital bond bill.

Byrne: Clear water is just one part of the environmental picture. I do want to talk a little bit about the state's approach to climate change.  Your predecessor, Jack Markell, set up Governor's Cabinet Committee on Climate Resiliency that produced a climate framework for Delaware in 2014, [and] a progress report in 2016, DNREC, is now getting set to hold workshops in all three counties next month to gather input on a state climate action plan. Is this kind of the next step in building on that initial framework, and I guess what are you hoping that this next step looks like as you build a climate action plan for the State?

Gov. Carney: Yeah, I think there are a couple pieces to it, right? Gov. Markell and his team did a nice job in setting the foundation, and the State has--through its utilities and kind of through the private marketplace -- has made real progress, both in terms of renewables as a percentage of the over electricity generation, as well as the conversion and the reduction in carbon emissions by converting all except one electricity generating turbine down at the Millsboro into, from coal fired generation to natural gas, which I'm told is about a forty percent or thereabouts, reduction in carbon emissions into the atmosphere for your electricity generation. We've not done such a good job or made much progress on the transportation side. 

So, two things I expect to happen.  One is we're meeting our a renewable portfolio standard which target was twenty five percent by 2025. We're going to change --move the goal posts -- to 35%, 40% percent by 2035 -- the bill that's being a discuss with senator McDowell who’s been the leader on this for years. So we'll have a new renewable portfolio standard as a target and we're really starting out to look at ways on the transportation side to reduce carbon emissions and essentially that means kind of setting up the infrastructure around electric vehicle.   I mean, it's a lot harder on that side, because of so much individual personal action in terms of taking up a new technology - i.e. electric vehicles - which right now are pretty expensive than it was on the electricity generation side where coal fired plants just became less affordable than natural gas fired plants and so there was an easy transition there.

Making improvements in electricity generation in that and you know, in the next twenty years could prove to be more challenging -- or less because the costs associated with renewables is now going down and there is some expectation that we will be able to ride that path, you know, without a lot of bumps over the next period of time.

The last thing I think that we need to really be thinking about, and it's part of this proposed plan, is coastal resilience in because as a low lying state, Delaware is very vulnerable to that and we've had a you know we've had several examples of that the best one from my perspective is Prime Hook. You know I spent six years in Congress and Prime Hook was a federal wildlife preserve and [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] came up with a plan essentially to reestablish the beach heads there, and then the dunes and then to let mother nature you know it's going to take its course and we'll see where that takes us. But I can tell you right now, having been down there, the parking lot that used to be there right inside the water edge is now twenty five yards out into the bay.

Byrne: I know that from out reporting that the people have said this is kind of been a model project. It's one that they're hoping can be duplicated elsewhere.  Even habitat wise, [it’s] is having an impact on what kind of animals are coming back to the area.

Gov. Carney: Exactly right, I mean, one of the problems that existed prior to that [was] the dunes protected what were freshwater wetlands just inside and because of the salt water incursion there's no longer freshwater wetlands. So. it's been a major change the ecosystem down there as you can imagine.

Byrne: You talked about fiscal management little bit earlier.  I want to touch on that real quick. Once again, you are proposing to set aside some money [to put] into reserves for when there are down economic times -- $35 million dollars is your proposal this year, which would create a cushion of now $161.5 million --and that seems to have generalized support on both sides of the aisle.  The question I have is how high do you anticipate that cushion needing to go before you say, "Okay, we've got the cushion we need" and perhaps lawmakers start saying "We want to spend it on something, we want spend this type of money on something where we want to give a tax cut or roll back the realty transfer tax changes that were made to deal with the budget crisis a couple years ago." I guess - is there a ceiling in your mind of how high that reserve goes?

Gov. Carney: I don't know that I've thought about it in those discrete terms. My focus has really been on helping encourage - first of all - communicating with the people of our state. And when I go around people agree with what we're doing. I don't care whether you’re Democrat or Republican, they want elected officials to use our tax dollars efficiently and effectively. They'll tell you sometimes they’re willing to pay a little bit more if you use it right.

Now, everybody has a different view kind of what that looks like, So, we're trying to demonstrate to the people of Delaware the taxpayers that we are using it right you know we're not going to spend into this bubble, it's going to be it's a revenue bubble, for sure, part of it is because we did raise taxes on corporation as you said the real seat transfer tax I still don't like that and I don't like it because it makes us more vulnerable in an economic downturn. The first thing that goes is the housing market, and we could lose fifty to a hundred million dollars like that.  So, you have to think about the downside risk in the last cycles.  I'd say probably, we're at a hundred sixty one--and by the way, our legislature didn't approve the constitutional amendment I sought and the biggest part of the constitutional amendment would have been to allow us to use the Rainy Day fund you know in the times when it's actually raining pretty hard --never been used. But they have followed the rules that we established creating an operating budget target that's based on objective measures in the economy and then using any revenue above that as you said for the reserve - which is going to go up to $161 million - and onetime expense. The reason we're doing $50 million dollars to [clean] water is because of that. The reason we're able to do $50 million to economic infrastructure was because of that additional revenue.

So, at some point, I hope we get to that point where we have so much revenue that we're looking at, "Well is the reserve high enough? Maybe another one percent or so would meet that?”  Have we met all our one-time obligations?  We can still put money into water, we can put money into beach preservation, farmland preservation or we can cut taxes and the tax that I would look at is that to a real estate transfer tax because I think it makes us so much more vulnerable. I happen to believe that the things that we're doing around fiscal management will prove in the long term to be among the best things that we did for the state, and for the folks that came after us.

Byrne: Want to hear couple things real quick before we run out of time. Gun bills - in your State of the State you called on lawmakers pass bills addressing so called “ghost guns”, [and] high capacity magazines. No mention of assault weapons or gun permitting. Is that indication you believe those latter two just can't pass?

Gov. Carney: Yeah, I've talked to members of the General Assembly and I just feel like we ought to continue to make progress and pass legislation that has a chance of passing or focus on legislation that has a chance of passing.

The ghost gun legislation, for me, should be a no brainer. I think extended magazines is the same way. I know there are people out there that don't agree with me on that but I just think these are reasonable restrictions to protect the people of our state and to protect law enforcement by the way.

I think the worst possible thing that that we could see would be some sort of mass shooting in our state o at one of our schools. I can't imagine what that must be like and I don't want it to happen in our state and I think these tools will help us.

We already know that the red flag legislation that passed a couple a years ago with bipartisan support, Democrats and Republicans, has been successful. They've had a quite a number - close to eighty or more cases - that have gone before the judge, where there's due process, and say half of those, roughly, have resulted in somebody losing access to their fire arms, which proves to me two things: one. that it's working that we're identifying people that might be a threat to themselves, or to others and taking their firearms away from them, and two, that there's due process because half of the people for whom that the action was taken you know didn't result in them losing a fire arms,. So, you know, somebody at some point can do a case-by-case study of that, but just on its surface, it seems to me that that's working. In these two provisions, I think that we are supporting I think can get passed and I'd like to see them pass.

Byrne: Death penalty - a new GOP sponsored draft bill would seek to bring it back, addressing the constitutional issues that struck it down previously -- and limiting the aggravating circumstances were it could be pursued to four: repeat offense, mass murder of three or more people in a public place, hate crime or horribly inhumane murder involving something like torture. Your Department of Correction commissioner Claire DeMatteis supports it; state Attorney General Kathy Jennings opposes it. You have said previously we consider capital punishment legislation that applied only in the case of the murder of a law enforcement officer. Is it fair to infer from that, that you would veto a bill like this one if it came to your desk?

Gov. Carney:  That'd be tough decision. You know, I was lieutenant governor [and] we had capital case clemency cases after which the prisoners were executed.  So I've seen it up close and personal and it never made me very comfortable to be honest with you.  I do, you know, having lived through the uprising at Vaughn [Correctional Center] and the murder of our correctional officer - I do believe particularly when you have people with life sentences and that were involved in that whole thing, I think you need it in terms of law enforcement and correctional officers.  I haven't looked at the specifics of the bill, but you know I certainly would want to see that there's protection for the law enforcement and for correctional officers.

Byrne: Finally, last question. This is an election year.  You are up for reelection. What is the message you intend to send voters about what a second Carney term would look like?

Gov. Carney: I think the main thing is let my record speak for me you know? I told the people of the state when I campaigned, here's what I was going to do and we have followed through on those things. Judge me by my record, and I think that's the main thing I've tried to-- you may have heard me say this before -- but, after the incident at Vaughn, I made a commitment to myself that we would do everything possible to make sure that nothing like that happened again and that we would at least do everything in our power to figure out how to prevent something like that from happening. Obviously there are circumstances that often beyond your control. And I also made a commitment to myself, like I did to the people when I ran the first time, that I was just going to try to do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may and that's the way we've approached so many of these issues. Trying to do the best thing for the state and be responsive to the people that we serve and work for, and that let my record speak for itself. And that's what I expect to do.  Obviously that involves telling people what that record is. So I will be out there doing that.





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