Bill would require legislature to allocate settlement funds

Delaware State News | by Matt Bittle

DOVER — Legislation introduced Thursday, five days ahead of the General Assembly’s return from the annual February break, would prohibit any settlement funds from being allocated by anything less than the full legislature.

The bipartisan measure, sponsored by Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, is in response to a 2016 allocation of bank settlement funds approved by the Joint Finance Committee on the recommendation of Attorney General Matt Denn.

The Democratic-controlled committee agreed to spend the money on a plan to reduce foreclosures, fix up vacant homes and provide more after-school programs for students, against the objection of Republicans, who argued any proposal to commit funds must come before all 62 lawmakers.

In the aftermath of the vote, 21 Republicans and Rep. Kowalko sponsored a resolution calling for an advisory opinion from the Delaware Supreme Court as to the legality. That resolution was defeated.

The new bill aims to clarify that the Legislature alone controls funds, Rep. Kowalko said.

A spokesman for Mr. Denn in an email wrote the attorney general “has long-standing, constitutionally-derived authority to negotiate and settle lawsuits and consent orders.”

“When there were bank settlements a few years ago that brought in amounts that were well into the millions of dollars, some of those funds were spent pursuant to an agreement worked out with the legislative Joint Finance Committee, and some went to the General Fund,” Carl Kanefsky said. “What the bill’s sponsors may not understand is that many of the settlement being impacted involve many — sometimes all — of the other states.

“Restrictions on how the attorney general is authorized to agree to settlements, or the terms he can include in such settlements, in addition to being constitutionally suspect, could lead to Delaware not being able to sign onto a nationally-negotiated settlement, meaning 49 other states will be able to get money from a corporation that has acted fraudulently and Delaware will not.”

School safety

While Democrats are pushing gun control measures in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, House Republicans are focusing on other methods to increase school security.

The caucus announced last week its members plan to file bills that would require every public school to have a panic button that would summon police and would create grants for schools to address safety issues.

Both measures were filed in recent years but failed to progress through the General Assembly.

A version of the silent alarm bill filed in 2015 had an estimated one-time cost of $105,500 to $316,500 to cover the expenses of adding such a system in 211 schools.

Main sponsor Rep. Joe Miro, R-Pike Creek Valley, said the cost would be “significantly lower” now because of improvements in technology and upgrades to school security.

“If you run the scenario with regard to picking the phone up and dialing 911, waiting for the operator and then having to tell them what’s going on versus pushing a button, we’re talking about seconds that are important and we’re talking about a very small amount of money compared to the vast amount of money that we spend on education,” House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, said in a statement.

The second proposal would establish a fund to provide grants of up $50,000 for schools. It includes a one-time allocation of $5 million for the fund.

While Republicans are generally opposed to Democratic plans ban the sale of assault weapons and to raise the age limit to buy a gun to 21, Rep. Short said the two school proposal should not be viewed as alternatives to firearm limitations.

“Every bill that is going to be introduced with regard to these issues of school safety should be debated on their own merit,” he said. “These should stand alone with regard to what they do for our kids and our school, and so I think all that discussion should be separate.”

Money bills

An unrelated GOP-backed measure would require the state’s budget, capital and grant-in-aid bills — collectively referred to the “money bills” — to be filed at least two business days before they are voted on.

In recent years, it has not been unusual for the money bills to not be officially filed until the final day of the legislative session. In 2015, for instance, lawmakers voted on the proposals around 4 a.m. July 1, just hours after they were introduced.

The tendency to wait until the last minute to finalize and pass a budget has drawn criticism from some lawmakers, particularly Republicans, who are in the minority.

“For the last couple of sessions, I’ve felt that there’s been major decisions at the last minute when we’re trying to conduct important business in the wee hours and I looked around the room and I thought, ‘This is not good government,’” Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, said in a statement.

The bill would allow legislators to ignore the two-day wait if three-fourths of members vote to do so.

All three GOP proposals could be introduced as soon as Tuesday.

Economic development chief

The state announced last week it has selected a high-ranking executive of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber to lead the public-private partnership that replaced the Delaware Economic Development Office.

William Kurt Foreman, executive director of the chamber’s economic development team, will head the Delaware Prosperity Partnership. He will report to the group’s board of directors, composed primarily of business and government officials.

“We remain focused every day on making sure that Delaware’s economy is competitive, and that all Delawareans have access to good, high-quality jobs,” Gov. John Carney, co-chair of the partnership, said in a statement.

“That’s why we have partnered with the private sector through the Delaware Prosperity Partnership to bring additional resources to our economic development efforts. The bottom line is this: Delaware remains a great location for businesses to put down roots, grow and create jobs.

“Kurt has the knowledge and experience necessary to tell our story and help us attract business and jobs to Delaware. We’re thrilled he has accepted this new role, and I look forward to our work together.”

The partnership, a nonprofit, is funded through a combination of state dollars and private investments. Created last year, it aims to attract companies to settle in Delaware and support ones already here.

It will have an annual budget of about $3.4 million.

Mr. Foreman, who starts his position in April, will be paid $240,000, with about 40 percent of that coming from private-sector dollars.

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