Del. Gov. Carney promises to invest in the environment, education in State of the State

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Delaware Governor John Carney grins during his 2020 State of the State address at Legislative Hall in Dover, Delaware on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.  (Butch Comegys for WHYY)

Delaware Governor John Carney grins during his 2020 State of the State address at Legislative Hall in Dover, Delaware on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (Butch Comegys for WHYY)

During his State of the State address Thursday, Delaware Gov. John Carney promised investments in the environment and education, as well as the largest infrastructure plan “in the state’s history.”

During his 40-minute speech, Carney touted Delaware’s economy, job growth and investments in technology.

The first-term Democrat, who is seeking re-election in November, praised a new program that awards grants to small businesses, and credited job growth to the sale of the Port of Wilmington to Gulftainer, which is investing $600 million to expand port operations.

Carney also touted efforts to improve the criminal justice system and to address the opioid epidemic.

“Our focus through all this has been to make Delaware’s economy more agile, more innovative, and more sustainable,” he said. “At the end of three years as your governor, I’m pleased to report that the state of our state is strong and getting stronger.”

As Carney looked back on the past year, he said he was proud of investments in transportation, including $10 million for the new Transportation Infrastructure Fund to improve roads, bridges and public transit.

Following a $400 million deficit a couple years ago, Delaware has since built a $200 million surplus, and has $126 million in additional reserves, the governor said.

On Thursday, Carney said his upcoming budget proposal will limit spending to what he calls “sustainable levels” and dedicate one-time revenue for one-time infrastructure projects. The Governor told legislators to expect the “largest infrastructure plan in our state’s history,” for the second year in a row.

“We’re building state-of-the art schools across our state,” Carney said. “We’re rebuilding our water infrastructure to make sure every Delawarean has access to clean water. We’re preserving open space and investing in our downtowns. We’re supporting our small businesses and the working families of this state.”

In his budget, the governor will propose $50 million in capital investments to strengthen economic infrastructure, funding companies that want to expand.

“Our goal is simple: We want companies to start here, to stay here, and to grow here,” Carney said.

He reiterated his proposal to spend $50 million on a Clean Water Trust to ensure clean water for residents, especially those who have contaminated wells and septic systems or suffer from stormwater runoff. Previous attempts by Carney’s predecessor Jack Markell and lawmakers to levy a fee on households and businesses failed.

During his speech, Carney touted last year’s efforts to improve the environment, including banning single-use plastic bags in large stores, and preserving 134,000 acres of farmland. This year, he said the state will plant 1 million trees — one tree per Delaware resident.

Carney will propose another $50 million to build the first traditional public school in the city of Wilmington in decades. In addition to a new school on the city’s East Side, the money would also fund renovations to two other city schools.

Carney said the education funding will expand on last year’s efforts to improve the education system with his new Opportunity Funding — something that has helped the school system hire more than 200 educators and professionals, focusing on low-income and English learners.

The governor also took time to address violence reduction in Wilmington and statewide. Last year, several gun safety bills were introduced in the state legislature. But not every bill reached a consensus across the political aisle.

Carney touted legislation that did pass in the General Assembly that keeps firearms out of the hands of those intending to harm themselves and others.

This year, he encouraged the legislature to continue to pass gun safety legislation, including banning “ghost guns” and high-capacity magazines.

“These bills are just common sense,” Carney said.

He also announced that he tasked the state’s chief information officer with the challenge of connecting the government and residents through technology, something he calls a “game changer” for the state.

Positive reaction from lawmakers

The address to a joint session of the state House and Senate was well-received by members of both parties. No Republican has yet to announce a challenge to Carney in November.

Republican Catherine Cloutier, the Senate minority whip, called Carney’s speech “very encouraging. It was all about how the economy is growing. I was pleased he was putting more toward clean water.”

Cloutier added that “everybody felt kind of good that there was no bad news. We’re doing well. When there’s a lot of money, it makes it even harder for us to do our job because wants a part of it instead of being able to say, ‘No, no, no. We don’t have the money.’ ”

Democrat Rep. Earl Jaques, who heads the House Education Committee, said he was pleased with Carney’s plan to build a new school for grades 1 to 8 to replace The Bancroft School, which is aging and  needs extensive renovation, but said some districts in Kent and Sussex County also need assistance and have high numbers of low-income children, many with special needs.

“I have asked the governor several times not to forget about all those areas, we need to help all children across our state,” Jaques said.

Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, a Democrat from Wilmington, said the new school for Wilmington is a long overdue blessing.

“It says that we care about our educators. It says that that we care about our children,’’ she said. “It says that we care about our community and it’s high time to invest in the city of Wilmington.”

Republican Sen. Dave Lawson of the Harrington area in Kent County, agreed with Carney that the state “is getting stronger” but said the state needs to do more attract manufacturing and better-paying jobs.

“There are 20,000 more employees. Unfortunately those jobs not high-paying. They’re minimum wage and part-time but hey, 20,000 back work is a good thing.”

Republican Ruth Briggs King of the Georgetown area of Sussex County says many of her constituents will benefit from Carney’s proposed Clean Water Trust.

“That’s good to hear that and it’s not a lot of additional spending. It’s one-time money and federal grants and other state money,’’ she said.

Briggs King and fellow GOP Rep. Mike Ramone of Pike Creek in New Castle County gave Carney credit for fiscal prudence.

“We’ve done a lot of things in Delaware, working on the budget, to make sure we’ve not increased the budget hugely but put aside money for the Rainy Day [Fund] and also focused on capital improvements in one-time expenditures, which I”m very supportive of.”

Ramone said the governor “has made some tough decisions’’ with a combination of prudent spending and tax increases, including the fee for property transfers.

“All in all, I’m feeling very positive,’’ Ramone said, noting the proposed investments in clean water and Wilmington schools. “I think we’re going to have a little extra money and maybe we can use some of that extra money to address some tax cuts.”

Sen. Harris McDowell of Wilmington, who is not seeking re-election after 44 years in office, called fellow city resident Carney “a hard-working governor’’ whose emphasis on education of low-income children and infrastructure and fiscal responsibility “all lead to a stronger Delaware.”

Republican Rep. Jeff Spiegelman of the Middletown area quipped that Carney is a much more relaxed public speaker in his fourth year in the state government’s highest office.

“He was joking around up there. He was loose,’’ Spiegelman said. “That’s obviously the difference between a $200 millioin surplus as we have now as opposed to a $400 million deficit in his first year.”

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