Delaware Public Media

COMMENTARY: Why we'll remember the 145th General Assemblyand why we won't

Jul 1, 2010

As the sun set last night on the 145th Delaware General Assembly session, both Governor Jack Markell and state legislators had reason to cheer. The budget came in on time and with revenue to spare. Several noteworthy laws were passed. But ultimately something that was not accomplished may lessen the legacy of the legislature’s achievements.

The lead-up to fiscal year 2011 in Delaware was a stark contrast to preparations for 2010. Short as much as $800 million last year, the governor and legislature wrangled over cuts amid uncertainty about how much revenue renewing sports betting would provide. This year, partly due to approval of table games at casino locations in the state, the General Assembly approved a budget higher than the year before. That fact is taken for granted until one recognizes that the 2010 budget lessened spending from the year before for the first time in a generation. It’s sort of like rebuilding after a flood with more materials than are necessary.

With a pot-o-pork left to divide, it was rather unseemly to watch Governor Markell and state legislators get prickly over priorities. With the better part of $20 million at stake, the governor sought to squirrel away most of the monies in a fund for economic development, while a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate members insisted on replacing previous cuts in members' personal earmarks for transportation and infrastructure projects in legislative districts. Perhaps on the heels of the Fisker auto plant and PBF Refinery deals, the governor won the tug-of-war.

An examination of Markell’s effectiveness in achieving cuts to curb spending reveals that results did not match his recommendations.

From eliminating county row offices, to disbanding the Board of Parole, to replacing state troopers with lesser-trained “resource officers” in schools, Markell’s proposed reductions were ignored or near totally defeated by the legislature. While most of the proposed cuts coming from the executive were sensible, a few were not.

What was the administration thinking in trying to save a paltry $4 million by suggesting cuts in the Division of Public Health that would have eliminated state funding of cancer screening and other vital projects? Where was the governor coming from in attacking the sacrosanct medical benefits and pension contributions of state employees?

Turning to revenue proposals broached or enacted by the General Assembly, both the governor and legislature deserve kudos for the diversity and creativity of revenue ideas.

For instance, try driving during the next blizzard and you could pay a $400 fine under one proposal, up from the previous negligible $25. Another bill would provide loans to filmmakers interested in making movies in Delaware—a program estimated to generate $50 million in tourism!

If that figure is familiar, that is what we were promised with the renewal of sports betting. The first-year net was $1 million after lawyers’ fees for the ill-advised and unsuccessful court appeals.

A few ideas for revenue were missed. There is no reason Delaware could not have implemented an aggressive, visible program like that of Pennsylvania to go after tax evaders. Further, instead of proposing a three-year moratorium on vanity plates as was recently suggested, simply increase the annual fees for those plates.

Without question, the just-passed session of the General Assembly will be remembered for passage of some major and far reaching laws, such as tightening sexual assault laws, enacting enhanced open-government provisions, banning cell phone use while driving in the state, and establishing the first statewide curbside recycling program. Legislators did the right thing by repealing a previous law punitive to third parties and by not tinkering with the Electoral College mechanism for selecting the U.S. president.

Still, the General Assembly missed a shot at immortality by refusing to take up and pass a bill or resolution apologizing for slavery and its vestiges in Delaware. After the Dover City Council passed a slavery apology resolution offered by the Dover Human Relations Commission in February and Governor Markell expressed his intention to enact such legislation should it reach his desk, the momentum existed for action. But the clock ran out for this version of the legislature to act.

Supporters of a slavery apology are disappointed but not unbowed, for some things are measured not by increments of time, but by the long, unforgiving judgment of history.

Professor Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. He serves as Chair of the Dover Human Relations Commission.