Economy to dominate as legislators return to work; casino gambling remains touchy topic

by Michael Short on February 24, 2011

By Michael Short

Delaware’s legislators returned to work on Tuesday to face what is expected to be a very challenging session.

Legislators are expected to reconsider an expansion of casino gambling, efforts to increase transparency in government and finding a way to wrestle with a tight budget and a sluggish economy.

But the economy will take center stage with everything else relegated to secondary status, with the possible exception of gambling expansion.

Governor Jack Markell has already said he expects to take a closer look at state employee benefits as a way of helping balance Delaware’s budget. He is expected to push for less generous pension and health care benefits for new state workers.

Markell will present his proposed budget on January 27. Federal stimulus funds have helped many states to balance their budgets, but that money is running out for states like Delaware.

That essentially leaves balancing the budget as the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, said that one way she hopes to cut costs is changing the way Delaware funds construction projects. Delaware pays the prevailing regional wage on construction projects and Briggs King hopes to pass legislation that will allow Delaware to pay a lesser rate.

She’s also calling for more support for existing business to help stimulate job growth. She said that will include looking more closely at regulations and red tape to see if they need to be eased.

House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, has said that Delaware needs to look at renewable energy like wind power as a tool to boost the economy.

The universal recycling legislation passed last year by the legislature has proven to be controversial, but legal. It was upheld on January 7 as constitutional by Delaware’s Chancery Court.

There are a number of changes in the makeup of this year’s legislature with the most dramatic being the absence of Rep. George Carey. Carey’s seat is now held by Harvey Kenton, R-Milford.

Carey served the 36th District for so long that it sometimes seemed he had almost been born into office. Kenton is a conservative who will focus on keeping taxes low, boosting the economy and improving education.

Sussex County also has a seat on the Joint Finance Committee. The very influential committee is vital when it comes to money matters and Sussex County lost its seat when former Representative Joe Booth became Senator Joe Booth, R-Georgetown.

Briggs King has been chosen to have a seat on the JFC Committee and she expects to take an active role. She said it’s a way of making sure that Sussex County gets a fair share of funding.

Schwartzkopf will push hard for an expansion of gambling because he believes it will bring more jobs to Sussex County. During the campaign, Schwartzkopf made it clear that he’s no fan of gambling.  “I couldn’t care two cents about a casino.”

But he said another venue could bring  jobs to Sussex County and could serve as a destination that attracts visitors. Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro, has also been supportive of expanding gambling because of the possibility of additional jobs.

If approved, the most likely site in Sussex County would be the Del Pointe project outside of Millsboro.

The issue, however, remains a thorny one. Briggs King, Kenton and Senator George Bunting, D-Bethany Beach, have said they are opposed to an expansion of gambling.

“Resisting the temptation of a simple solution to their problems, numerous surveys have shown that the majority of Sussex Countians have remained steadfast in their opposition to  expanding gaming,” Briggs King wrote in a recent letter to the editor. “Instead of backing the project, they’ve repeatedly expressed their concerns about its morality as well as the impact it will have on the county’s quality of life.”

“They want jobs in other sectors,” she said.

There were also several bills pre-filed on January 6 in the House of Representatives including legislation aimed at reducing alleged gang activity in Delaware. The legislation would increase the penalty for gang participation.

“This bill will, hopefully, serve as a first step in protecting our communities by showing we are serious about addressing gangs,” said Rep. E. Bradford Bennett, D-Dover.

Other bills filed on Thursday include a measure that would prohibit public schools from serving food containing more than small amounts of trans fats (the measure failed last year) and a measure to restrict former legislators from immediately becoming lobbyists.

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