Budget, voting rights and death penalty weighing on Delaware legislators

Now that the Joint Finance Committee has wrapped up hearings with state agencies as they prepare the Fiscal Year 2015 budget, legislators are back to tackle other issues.

Lawmakers returning to work were met by two separate rallies in Dover this afternoon. The first featured Sister Helen Prejean, the nun turned author who wrote “Dead Man Walking” after her first-hand experience working with death row inmates.

The rally was sponsored by Delaware Repeal in an attempt to drum up support for Senate Bill 19, which would repeal Delaware’s death penalty. The bill narrowly passed the Senate last year and is currently tabled in the House Judiciary Committee.

The second rally was in support of House Bill 105, which would allow same-day voter registration in Delaware. The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Viola, D-Newark, has passed committee and advocates hope it will get a vote this session.

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Tax hikes on the horizon

Along with social issues, lawmakers are gearing up for debates on Gov. Jack Markell’s proposed tax hikes.

The governor has suggested a 10-cent gas tax hike as well as new taxes to help clean Delaware’s waterways.

Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said neither tax proposal is in bill form yet.  

“We have not seen them in draft form so the devil is still in the details, particularly the water tax, how it’s going to be calculated, how it’s going to be collected, what’s going the charged all that kind of stuff,” explained Lavelle. “So there are a lot of details to be explored there.”

Markell also proposed an increase in the Corporate Franchise Tax as well as an increase in the annual tax on the 750,000 Limited Liability Companies, Limited Partnerships and General Partnerships in Delaware.

Those increases could help the state combat the looming FY 2015 budget deficit however; Lavelle said he’s hesitant to move quickly on those increases.

“We don’t know what our revenue picture is going to be and this tax increase is likely to be passed in the next week in a half, may not be enough if the economy continues to be slow. On the other hand, it may provide spending that otherwise not prudent and push out some other things. So I think it’s too early.”

The latest Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council Revenue (DEFAC) projections show $108 million less than what was reported by the council in December for this fiscal year.

Officials say it’s mostly due to a $70 million drop in estimated corporate income taxes.

For FY 2015, the state is projecting $77 million more than what was reported in December.

There are still three more DEFAC reports that need to be released before the June 30 budget deadline.

Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington North, chair of the Joint Finance Committee, said the state has had to “scrimp” the past six years and the current projections are making the budget writing process challenging.

“We will come out with a balanced budget, the question is, will we cross the line between just being as tight as we can to be responsible and being irresponsible, and that’s something I hope we don’t have to face,” said McDowell.

During JFC hearings, several agencies expressed the need for a pay increase and while McDowell said they are planning for a one-percent increase, but he’d like to give more.

“I would very much like to, and when you look at the history, it’s certainly justified,” said McDowell. “I’ve got a sheet here with over $100 million of requested increases, there’s not a foolish item on this list.”

The legislature is just getting started. Lawmakers have until June 30 to pass the budget as well as a host of other bills this session.

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