Legislative Update 2016-2017
Representative John Kowalko
We concluded the second year of the 148th General Assembly on June 30th. It was not an easy session as we spent much of our time working to balance a budget far too tight to meet the needs of the citizens of Delaware and you, my constituents. I have a challenger this year and I will need all of you to come out on November 8th to vote for my re-election!
We passed legislation that helps level the playing field for women, such as Equal Pay for Equal Work in State Contracting, Caregiver Discrimination Protection, and Family Leave for Public Employees that provides maternity or paternity leave for full-time employees. I co-sponsored Payday Lending Limits, Marijuana Decriminalization, and Removing the Financial Bar to Voting. We also expanded domestic violence protections, closed the “Charleston Loophole” which allowed “prohibited” persons to purchase firearms, and passed a bill to allow Medical Marijuana for Terminal Patients.
This coming January, Delaware legislators must come together to reapportion revenues in our State. This past year, two poorly thought out pieces of legislation, known as the “Delaware Competes Act” and the “Commitment to Innovation Act,” were passed on the very first day of session and will forfeit more than $60 million to wealthy corporations. This will add to the burden of our shrinking revenue resources. Over the last eight years, Delaware has given $250 million to the world’s wealthiest corporations. I will need your help convincing my fellow legislators that if we instead dedicate money to encouraging and assisting growth in smaller Delaware-based companies, we will allow our small businesses to prosper, expand, and provide thousands of new jobs. I hope to expand the Minimum Corporate Franchise Tax Cap to recover part of the $60 million in lost revenue. As the demand for state services in education and healthcare grows, we need to prepare for the future growth in service expenses. Some of the changes made to the current budget will add to the economic burden placed on Delaware families and small businesses. Some spending proposals in the budget were dedicated to unproven and unnecessary programs, including continued funding to the failed Race to the Top adventure.
Earlier this year, I successfully petitioned the Public Service Commission to enhance billing transparency for Delmarva ratepayers. This will permit electric consumers to see explicit charges in their bill. For instance, the cost to the individual customer for the Bloom subsidy is now a separate line item listed as fuel cell costs. Transparency and open government is essential. The public must have unadulterated access to policy and decision making and an open disclosure of how those decisions effect their families and businesses.
The recently concluded merger of Exelon and Pepco Holdings, Inc. has raised serious questions in how and to whom a multimillion dollar settlement resulting from this merger will be spent. The ever increasing costs of utilities is causing the small business community and middle class unaffordable hardship, and I will continue fighting for serious reconsideration of settlement dollars and utility rate increases.
Delaware’s public education system is approaching a crisis stage with the arcane funding mechanism known as referendums. Further complicating the matter is the recent attempt by the Delaware Department of Education to redirect funds intended to educate our special needs, impoverished, and at-risk children without consulting or engaging the various business managers in the local districts. This is a prime example of deliberately impeding an open and transparent process that should involve all stakeholders and be accessible to the public.
Once again, million dollars of taxpayer money was delivered without any accountability or specificity of use via a mechanism called budget “epilogue language,” which when inserted into the budget contravenes existing law that explicitly prohibits that type of fiscal irresponsibility.
These are but a few examples of how important it is to have a government that is open and transparent. The advantage to having many sets of eyes reviewing the decision making process and the policies that result is that critiques and improvements can be made to ensure the benefits and identify the potential harm.
I intend to bring full transparency to government and engage the public in every aspect of policy making. I will always work on behalf of you, my constituents, and in your best interests, regardless of pressures brought to bear by “special interests.” As I near the end of my fifth term as your State Representative, I realize my responsibilities to you and your families is of paramount importance and the reason you have put your faith in me at election time. I will never betray your trust and will make sure your voices are heard. There is much to do and many more obstacles to overcome. You have my word that I will be resolute and determined in facing the challenges and fighting for you, your families, and in the best interests of all Delawareans.
Sponsored Legislation of Note
During the second half of the 148th G.A., I sponsored numerous pieces of important legislation which have not gone to a floor vote. With your support this November 8th, I will be re-elected and I plan to reintroduce these important bills.
HB 50 – also known as Opt Out. I mention this bill in particular at the top of this list because it was one of the most important parental/student rights bills in the 148th General Assembly. This bill passed both chambers of the G.A. by more than a two-thirds margin and then was unceremoniously vetoed by the Governor when we were out of session. I tried to have it reconsidered for an override vote as provided by the rules but the House leadership chose to ignore those rules and stopped it from coming to the floor for a vote of the full body. As a parental rights bill strongly supported by DSEA and the PTA as well as tens of thousands of Delaware parents and professionals along with three of the largest school districts in the State, its fate signals that sometimes those in power choose to abuse that power. This is a piece of legislation I hope to revisit this upcoming year.
HB 43 – Requires an annual financial disclosure by members of the Cash Management Advisory Board. This Board oversees $2 billion in taxpayer money, and the bill would have these members adhere to the same policy required of over twenty different State entities in the law.
HB 44 – Protects children from exposure to toxic, carcinogenic substances. The bill was kept in committee. The reasoning of the committee chairperson to not release was a message of support for big businesses at the expense of public safety.
HB 42 – Removes the exemption of the University of Delaware and Delaware State University from FOIA requirements for public institutions, as they receive over $150 million in taxpayer dollars. This bill was once again bottled up in the House Administration Committee to the consternation of open and transparent government advocates. The public interest was disserved when the House leadership refused to release this bill.
I serve on the Energy Committee, the Health and Human Development Committee, the Natural Resources Committee, the Labor Committee, and the Manufactured Housing Committee. As my 25th District constituent, you have access to a lot of influential committees, and I welcome and encourage your input and ideas to facilitate that advantage.
Although I no longer serve on the Education Committee, I will not waver in my resolve to do what is right and just for the children, parents, and taxpayers of Delaware. I continue to attend meetings and voice my opinion on legislation, as well as working closely with key members of the committee.
As always, when looking at any proposed tax or fee increases, I consider whether or not they are regressive and how significantly they could disaffect families who are already struggling with the current economic situation. I have consistently opposed revenue cuts and giveaways that advantage the wealthiest corporations in the world. This Corporate Welfare has netted no identifiable return on investment at enormous costs to Delaware taxpayers. I have introduced legislation that will allow Delaware to wean itself from some of the inconsistent and unsustainable revenue sources on which we’ve become dependent. For example, HB 181 and HB 196 would establish higher tax brackets for those individuals earning in excess of $125,000 and $250,000 (taxable income). These two bills were released from committee but were denied a floor vote by the House. For clarity, under these bills, an individual earning a quarter million dollars in taxable income would see a yearly increase in taxes of $625. In addition, HB 216 would raise revenue from corporations. It was also released from committee but not allowed to the floor.
One of the most important challenges facing Delaware families and our public education system are the corporate education reform agendas that threaten to drain needed financial resources from public education and deposit those monies in the for profit sector.
I am aware that significant flaws in our education policies and laws have caused a great deal of conflict and confusion, resulting in an inability to focus on the fundamentals and a fracturing of our communities. Recent legislation has unleveled the playing field and potentially harms our highest needs students. There have been some positive moves with the completion of the WEIC plan. Delaware now must concentrate its reform efforts to fund a plan that will benefit all of its citizens.
The Delaware Department of Education, however, has consistently added positions in the past few years, recently creating eight additional six-figure positions that were not approved by the General Assembly. In addition, the Administration wants to use taxpayer money to continue Race to the Top programs long after federal money has been exhausted.
The DOE and State Board of Education have also been engaged in a effort to judge educators and student performances based on an unproven system that could mischaracterize good teachers as ineffective while completely failing to identify the educational needs of the individual students. The adoption of the Smarter Balanced Assessment test, an unproven and potentially harmful exercise, comes with a huge price tag and no obvious way to identify children’s potential or needs.
I will concentrate my efforts on trying to correct the inconsistencies and vagaries in our education laws to allow a true available choice for all parents while preserving the intent of alternative programs such as charter schools to flourish as laboratories of innovation that can be replicated in traditional schools.
I have visited many schools in the 25th District and have witnessed some extraordinarily successful programs at Newark High School, Downes Elementary School, McVey Elementary School, Brookside Elementary School, West Park Elementary School, and the Delaware School for the Deaf. These successes are due to the highly qualified and dedicated teachers and administrators in those schools and the willingness of the students and parents to partake of those advantages. My personal measure of the success of any public education system is that “to be considered as successful, an education system must provide the opportunity for all children to reach their full potential.” Anything short of that can never be satisfactory or acceptable.
“Do not train children to learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” — Plato
Energy & the Environment
I recently testified at a Public Service Commission meeting to object to recommendations from DNREC, the Public Advocates’ office, and others that $14 million in settlement from the merger of Exelon and Pepco Holdings should be given to the Delaware Department of Economic Development (DEDO) and some of the wealthiest corporations for their energy efficiency promotions. It should be given to the low and moderate income ratepayers and businesses to enhance their prospects of successful energy efficiency based savings. Those savings would translate immediately into additional consumer spending that will sustain local businesses growth and fuel an economic recovery sorely needed in Delaware.
As previously mentioned, I petitioned the Public Service Commission to open a docket to bring more detail and transparency to Delmarva Power’s electric bills. That petition was granted, and after two and a half years, I am pleased to announce a successful conclusion to those efforts. Additional items will be listed on your monthly bill, including a specific breakout of the Bloom Energy surcharge. This victory on behalf of Delmarva ratepayers is also a victory for honest, open, and transparent government. It allows you to more accurately know exactly what you are paying for.
I am determined to represent your interests to prevent higher utility bills from eroding the economic stability of your family budget. As a member of the House Energy Committee, I will continue to address issues affecting your family’s health, the environment, and the economy, including rail safety and crude oil transport by train. Hundreds of railcars pass through our community each day, and we must continue to have a frank and open dialogue concerning its safety.
As an active member of the National Council of State Legislators (NCSL), I have participated in many forums and panel discussions about the effects of fossil-fuel dependency, the harmful effects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the failure to confront the real possibility of another banking crisis/failure. As a member of four NCSL committees, I have offered resolutions to abandon the TPP and reinstate a modernized Glass-Steagall Act.
The State continues to offer one of the most effective programs to assist Delaware seniors, and I continue to support this important policy. The New Castle County School Property Tax Credit Program, financed by the State, continues to be very successful at reducing the tax burden on eligible senior homeowners. If you are 65 or older, you can apply to receive credit for your school property tax. This program is based on age not income. Once you receive the credit, you do not have to reapply each year. The State of Delaware will pay 50% of your school tax bill, up to $500. To be eligible, you must have turned 65 by June 30th in the year that you are applying for the tax credit, and you must apply by September 1st. For an application, please contact the County Assessment Division at (302) 395-5520, and also ask about New Castle County’s property and sewer tax reductions dependent on income.
ELDERinfo: This is Delaware’s State Health Insurance Assistance Program. It is designed to assist seniors with Medicare and general questions and concerns. They may be reached at 1-800-336-9500.
Delaware Prescription Assistance Program: The Delaware Prescription Assistance Program continues to assist low-income seniors with the costs associated with prescription drugs. To see if you qualify, please call 1-800-996-9969, option 2.
The Delaware Helpline Can Help You: Call 1-800-464-HELP for information on state government agencies and referrals to community resources.
Cancer Care Connection: This non-profit organization helps patients, family members, caregivers, and friends in locating a wide range of services at no charge. Coping assistance and professionally trained cancer resource coaches are available toll-free at 1-866-266-7008.
Senior Roll Call Lifeline: The Roll Call program is run by the New Castle County Police and provides a reliable, daily telephone call to seniors. Every morning you will receive a phone call from the program. When you answer the phone, a prerecorded message will ask if you are OK. Just hang up the phone and the computer will note all is well. Please call (302) 395-8159 to learn more about this free program.
Newark Senior Center: The Newark Senior Center provides wonderful services and a wholesome environment for seniors. If you are a senior, you should join to take advantage of its services. If you are not a senior, I hope you’ll consider volunteering to help with its activities.
Quality of Life Issues, Street Repair, and Stormwater Projects
I have always tried to secure an honest and first-hand evaluation of needed street repair and storm-water relief projects so that all funds administered from the Community Transportation Fund will be spent effectively, judiciously, and where needed most. Some projects of note have been funded and some completed, including Winterview Way in the Terraces of Old Iron Hill, Pollari Circle in Reserve at Ironside, Alwyn Road in Robscott Manor, Godwin Drive in Elwin Manor, North Hunter Forge Road in Anvil Park, a portion of Arizona State Drive and Oklahoma State Drive in Academy Hills, and two sections of Garvey Lane and Snowflake Road in Pencader Village. Additional projects that I’ve managed to fund this year are: Cobble Creek Curve in the subdivision of Stones Throw, Aikens Court in Pencader Village, Columbus Circle and Autumn Horseshoe in Four Seasons, Knight’s Crossing in Beaulieu, Argyle Road and Myers Road in Robscott Manor and Lark Drive in Arbour Park.
Meeting Constituent Needs
My pledge to all of you is that I will never abdicate my ultimate responsibility, as your elected public servant, to meet any and all constituent needs. I try to make myself available any day and at any time, not only to listen to your suggestions, complaints, and concerns, but to hear and respond to your needs. Ultimately, I am responsible to all my 25th District constituents and all citizens in Delaware because I work for you. I accept that responsibility and take those tasks very seriously and enthusiastically. If I cannot answer your concern, then I will find someone who can. If you find yourself in need of my services, please call my office at (302) 577-8342, or my home number at (302) 737-2396. If it is an emergency matter, you may leave a message on my home phone or email me at email@example.com. I personally check my emails several times daily. If you are elderly or do not use email or need an immediate response that is time sensitive, please call my cell at (302) 547-9351.
I want to thank all of you for your responses to questionnaires in the past. This year I am posing four questions for your consideration and hope you will respond to them by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you think we should create two additional higher tax brackets? Yes or No (Comment optional)
Do you support the parental right to opt their child out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment test? Yes or No (Comment optional)
Do you oppose the revenue giveaways to the wealthiest corporations? Yes or No (Comment optional)
Do you believe Incorporation and LLC licensing laws should require divulging the identity of the “beneficial owner” in order to prevent fraud, money-laundering, and formation of shell companies? Yes or No (Comment optional)