By Mike Quaranta, President, Delaware State Chamber of Commerce
Almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted much of our lives online — from education and work to healthcare and retail shopping. And remarkably, our broadband infrastructure performed superbly, helping families across Delaware adapt to these seismic changes.
But many Delawareans are stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide – lacking a home broadband connection for different and sometimes complicated reasons. It’s a problem that needed to be fixed even before the pandemic, and one that has more urgency now.
Although 98 percent of Delaware’s communities are wired for broadband and we have the fastest average internet speeds of any state, only 76 percent of Delaware residents actually subscribe to broadband at home.
Many factors contribute to this broadband “adoption gap.” When unconnected Delaware households are asked why they don’t subscribe, more than 60 percent say they just don’t see the need for, or have any interest in, high-speed internet. Sometimes non-adopters may prefer their mobile service. And one quarter of Delawareans don’t have a computer at home.
To help address this challenge, most major broadband providers have established programs to offer low-cost broadband ($10 to $15 per month) to low-income customers together with crucial digital literacy training and discounted computers to help spark interest. These programs have helped millions of low-income Americans get online over the past decade, including many right here in Delaware. And since the start of the pandemic, many providers have gone farther – opening up Wi-Fi hotspots to the public and even offering free home service for the most vulnerable customers.
Still, we need to better understand why broadband has failed to capture the imagination and interest of so many across our state, despite the widespread availability of subsidized discount programs. This is a critical sociological issue we need to solve.
In addition, in some of our state’s rural, downstate communities, the problem is less about broadband adoption rates than with broadband availability. Longer distances and fewer customers-per-mile make broadband infrastructure cost-prohibitive without public investments.
Here in Delaware, Governor John Carney’s effort to bring wireless broadband to over 127,000 homes and businesses in Sussex and Kent counties was an important step forward. More recently, Delaware’s Department of Technology & Information (DTI) and Department of Education have committed over twenty million dollars of CARES Act funding to help fast-track broadband infrastructure and adoption programs in rural downstate communities.
But like rural electrification a century ago, this rural deployment challenge is national in scope, and requires a national response. This isn’t a problem Delaware should be left to solve on its own; the federal government also needs to step up more.
Congress spent tens of billions over the past decade trying to connect rural America but has made little progress – over 20% of rural Americans still have no access to wired broadband.
The last rural deployment effort launched by the 2009 stimulus bill was half-baked in conception and poorly executed, with billions of taxpayer dollars diverted to build duplicative networks in communities that already had high-speed service, instead of being prioritized for unserved areas.
The federal government’s internal watchdog office criticized the ham-handed effort: “We are left with a program that spent $3 billion, and we don’t really know what became of it,” Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigator Mark Goldstein said at the time.
This fall, the Federal Communications Commission will try again with a new $20 billion effort to deploy broadband in rural communities.
This time, we need to be smarter. Congress needs to focus federal funds where the problem is greatest: areas that currently have no fixed broadband service, including some in Sussex and Kent Counties.
To further buildout rural broadband, we also need to reform the eligibility rules to encourage more competition among broadband builders vying for federal construction contracts. The current, outdated rules, written almost 25 years ago, allow some state and local regulators to steer funds toward their favored providers, instead of those best equipped to get the job done right.
Finally, we need accountability: the Feds should tell us how communities will get needed broadband and in what year – and then set up a system to ensure the goals are met. Too often, pie-in-the-sky rhetoric has been followed by an empty bag of results.
We need to get universal broadband in each and every Delaware community, and get every home to actually sign up. It’s critical for us to compete globally, to grow our local economy, and to address longstanding social and economic inequities.
We can’t afford to wait any longer.
By James DeChene, Armitage DeChene & Associates
The General Assembly gaveled out of session early on July 1, 2020 in what was the earliest ending in recent memory due to what has been an almost indescribable year to date. With little to no drama on the money bills (Budget, Grants in Aid, and Bond) as they were passed on June 29th, the General Assembly was left to close out a few bills on consent agendas.
The Senate said goodbye to retiring Senator Harris McDowell, and the House bid farewell to retiring Representative Quinn Johnson. This means that for next session there will be two new co-chairs for the Joint Finance Committee and both the Senate and House Energy Committees will have new chairs as well.
As the General Assembly came back to session in January, members seemed poised to pass a series of legislation that included increasing Delaware’s minimum wage, expanding worker’s rights, and increasing the role and presence of private and public employee unions. Those bills largely went nowhere, and with the COVID-19 pandemic altering how the legislature would work, those bills were placed on hold until next year.
The same can be said for legislation the business community supported as well. Efforts to invest in clean water infrastructure, building a new high school in the City of Wilmington, modifying the state’s offerings of Association Health Plans and creating new workforce training platforms (more on that later) all took a pause as well.
That said, a number of bills important to the business community were introduced, and some were acted on in the final weeks of this session. They included:
In the midst of three months of uncertainty, countless Zoom meetings with Governor Carney, members and staff from his Administration, the chambers of commerce community, stakeholder groups and others, there were a number of positives that were announced, and work completed ahead of schedule.
The State Chamber has long been an advocate for rural broadband development and adoption. Last year’s announcement of BlooSurf, a project to bring broadband to western Sussex and Kent counties was met with fierce approval. Originally slated to be completed in 18-24 months, the project was able to be completed in just over 12 by using federal CARES Act funds to speed up the building process. In July 2020, 15 towers are set to be completed. Efforts to promote residential adoption of broadband will roll out soon after in preparation for what could be another school year of distance learning. Now children in these communities will be able to be active participants. Similar broadband adoption efforts are taking place in Wilmington with the similar goal of making sure all children have access to distance learning efforts.
For the last year, the State Chamber has pushed for the creation of a workforce training program similar to what has worked with ZipCode Wilmington. A compressed, 40-hour week training schedule focusing on in-demand career paths that will help transition low-skill workers into better paying jobs. While the legislation creating this program was not worked on this year, we continue to work with Governor Carney and his Administration on creative ways to implement such a program, especially in light of the potential permanent job losses related to COVID-19.
Between now and January 2021, when the 151st General Assembly convenes, much will have happened:
There remains a great deal of uncertainty as we enter the second half of 2020. What does remain certain, however, is the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce’s dedication to advocacy on behalf of its members – the business community.
Look for more opportunities in the coming months to hear from experts on the latest trends as the COVID-19 pandemic, and recovery, continue to evolve. Also look for innovative networking opportunities and other creative ways to get your business noticed. For more information, check www.DSCC.com.
by James DeChene, Armitage DeChene & Associates
The big news this week for State Chamber members was Governor Carney and House Majority Leader Longhurst announcing a $50 million investment in water infrastructure projects in Delaware. From storm water, waste water, drinking water and flood abatement, these issues will see over $100 million in funding, once matching funds are added. The State Chamber has pushed for a Water Infrastructure bill like this for a number of years. This level of funding will cover the next 5-10 years, instead of having to go back for money year after year. With longevity like this, projects can be bid on/completed in a thoughtful way. This also creates the ability to lump projects together to see more value for money being spent and more efficient, larger outcomes. The State Chamber sees this as how infrastructure money should be used and a great use of one-time money by the Carney Administration. Moreover, this bill not only addresses drinking water in areas like Ellendale and Blades but also flooding downstate and stormwater remediation upstate.
The Governor also announced $50 million to build a new school and upgrade current schools in Wilmington. During his State of the State address he outlined how the money would be spent. The school would replace Bancroft School and includes funding for major renovations to Stubbs Early Education Center and Bayard School, the two other Christina facilities in Wilmington.
The Governor also announced plans to create a One Stop website for citizens where they can buy park passes, register to vote and more, much like the recently created One Stop site for businesses. He is also creating a Site Readiness Fund to help quickly convert properties to meet the needs of prospective employers and expanding the EDGE grant program to support small business.
Other items of note include a proposed renewable portfolio standard of using 40% renewable energy by 2035, and planting a million new trees across the state.
A reminder that next week will see the budget proposed by the Governor, a starting point for the General Assembly. The Joint Finance Committee will be meeting later this year to write their budget and it remains to be seen what of the Administration’s proposals will make the cut.
More on the proposed budget and what it contains next week.
This week Governor Carney signed into law a number of bills important to businesses throughout Delaware.
SB95 creates a contractor registry for commercial and residential contractors as a way to combat improper use of 1099 labor. In addition, it allows for contractors to sub out portions of their work to other contractors, bringing Delaware in line with surrounding states.
House Bill 130, the Plastic Bag Ban bill was signed and goes into effect January 1, 2020. The bill bans most plastic bags for retailers over 7,000 square feet or that have three locations, each being at least 3,000 square feet. But it does allow the continued use of bags to enclose raw meats and vegetables, along with restaurant carry out bags and containers.
SB61, the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Fund bill, was also signed. This DSCC-backed bill creates a fund to help offset infrastructure requirements on commercial development projects.
Also this week was a Senate pre-file of legislation impacting Delaware’s renewable portfolio standards. Important because of how it mandates the ratio of renewable energy Delaware power companies must offer, the legislation increases to the use of renewables to 40% by 2035, of which 7% must come from solar. The DSCC is currently reviewing the language to provide feedback.
by James DeChene
This week in Dover the major bill impacting the business community was SB105, which will raise Delaware’s minimum wage to $15. We started off the week hosting a teletown hall with over 50 members joining to hear the latest on timing and strategies, and a number of businesses joined us in Dover to make comment on the bill at the Senate Labor Committee. The stories business leaders shared during the committee meeting were compelling and varied, and included entities ranging from nonprofits to small and medium sized businesses from bakeries to a small business sign maker. Ultimately the bill was released from committee and has now been assigned to Senate Finance Committee due the bill’s significant fiscal note. If you have not taken the opportunity to contact your senator on this bill, I urge you to do so by visiting our Action Network page.
Other bills of note: The passage of a Chamber-backed bill in SB61, which would create a Transportation Infrastructure Investment Fund (TIFF) to help expedite commercial and industrial development projects. Released out of committee was SB74. This bill would make a technical change to the New Economy Jobs credit making it easier and more likely businesses will be able to take advantage of the credit.
Moving forward, there are 7(!) legislative days left this session. DEFAC will meet next Wednesday to announce the final forecast numbers that will dictate how much money will be allocated to the bond and grant-in-aid bills.
members testifying against sb105 on june 12:
by James DeChene
This week was the first in the four-week sprint to June 30. Highlights this week included: HB110, the legalization of marijuana bill was released out of House Revenue and Finance committee. DSCC remains opposed to the bill for reasons such as restrictions in how employers can create employment policies surrounding marijuana use, the current difficulty for employers finding qualified applicants that can pass a drug screen (which we think will be exacerbated by legalization) and the lack of a spot test for impairment.
SB105, the bill that would raise Delaware’s minimum wage to $11 in January 2020 and then by a dollar each year until it hits $15 in 2024 (with an imbedded escalator to raise with cost of living), was tabled in committee this week, HOWEVER, it will be heard in Senate Labor Committee next Wednesday, June 12. This will be one of the Key Votes (along with HB110) that DSCC will be using when making the decision on whether to support candidates.
Also this week was the State Chamber’s End-of-Session Brunch. Attendees heard from Tim Holly, chair of the DSCC Employer Advocacy Committee, on HB110, from Gary Stockbridge, DSCC Chairman, Chair of the Delaware Workforce Development Board (DWDB) and President of Delmarva Power, on what the DWDB is up to and how members can help in workforce training. We then heard from Solomon Adote from the Delaware Department on Technology & Information on the Cyber Security Council and the work they are doing to develop best practices on how to combat cybersecurity threats.
Rounding out the morning were remarks from House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf on what to expect in June, including legislation on clean water, medical and recreational marijuana, education investments and how the state budget is shaping up. Senate President David McBride offered his perspective including acknowledging efforts by the General Assembly and the State Chamber to help provide economic development opportunities in Delaware. He also discussed what the Senate will be working on, including minimum wage in committee, education and transportation infrastructure investment
by James DeChene
HB110, the bill that would legalize recreational marijuana, will be heard in the House Revenue and Finance Committee on Wednesday, June 5, at 2:30 p.m. Those members who have concerns over what legalized marijuana will mean to their business and their employees should come to Dover and tell committee members about the impact this legislation will have if passed.
To recap, the bill:
Each speaker can expect to have two minutes to speak—including introducing themselves and their organization, the number of employees you have, and the impacts the bill will have. I am happy to help guide you through this process. Please let me know as soon as possible if you plan to attend.
In other news this week, DTI and Bloosurf announced a partnership to bring broadband to areas in Sussex, Kent and southern New Castle counties over the next 18-24 months. This is an initiative the Chamber has been very supportive of, and we are looking forward to the economic development opportunities that will come as a result of this investment.
The General Assembly is back in session next week, and 13 legislative days remain. Expect a flurry of bills to be introduced, including a clean water infrastructure bill and more to come on a potential minimum wage increase bill.
by James DeChene
This week saw action on bills important to the Chamber. First, SB74 provides employers taking advantage of the New Economy Jobs credit to prorate the credit over 12 months, rather than using the calendar year (Chamber supports). This would allow employers making hires at the end of the year a full 12 months to spread out the credit. SB21, creating the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Fund was released from House Transportation Committee (Chamber supports). A bill banning certain flame retardants in consumer products (HB117-Chamber opposes) was tabled in committee. A bill banning single use plastic bags (HB130) passed the House and now goes to the Governor for signature. The effective date for implementation is January 1, 2021.
This session’s HB110, an act to legalize recreational marijuana, was introduced this week. As drafted the Chamber still opposes the language and will be working to insert language to protect employers. As previously noted, 71% of Chamber members oppose legalization.
Last week the Chamber attended a working group focused on what the next round of renewable portfolio standard goals would be post-2025. The Chamber expressed concerns over how increasing renewables would impact Delaware commercial energy users, and to make sure that as technology continues to improve, Delaware doesn’t lock itself in to a certain type of renewable source.
The General Assembly is off for the next two weeks before returning for all of June.
by James DeChene
This week marked the first of the General Assembly’s two-week Easter break. DEFAC met this week and revised its forecast by an additional $42.8 million for this year, and roughly $16 million for FY20. Each of DEFAC’s meetings this year have seen revisions upwards. A reminder that the Governor has urged the General Assembly to set aside any such increases to be used for savings for future years and on one-time expenditures, like the Bond Bill.
This week and next, I’ll give updates on the status of bills so far this session that have an impact to Chamber members:
SB61 is a Chamber-supported bill that would create a Transportation Infrastructure Investment Fund (TIIF). It passed the Senate and now heads to the House for committee assignment. The bill creates a fund to help offset the cost of providing transportation-related improvements for commercial and industrial development projects, which will also help speed the process to project completion.
SB65, the FAST bill, heads to the Senate for a vote. The bill provides up to $9K to Delaware high school graduates to obtain a non-degree certification. The Delaware Workforce Development Board will create an approved list of certifications, and the Chamber supports the bill.
SS1 to SB 48, a bill to require apprentice and craft training on prevailing wage jobs, was released from the House Labor committee, and is ready to be voted on in the House. The Chamber opposes the bill as drafted and is working to amend it prior to the vote in the House.
HB15 is a bill the Chamber opposes and would create two new top tax brackets: 7.1% for earners making $125K and over, and 7.85% for earners making $250K and over.
SS2 for SB50 directs money from the bond bill to be issued to DelTech, along with bonding authority, to help address the college’s deferred maintenance issues reported on before. The bill’s main difference from the original SB50 is the removal of the statewide property tax provision as a revenue source. The bill is ready to be signed by the Governor.
SS1 for SB25 was passed and the age to purchase tobacco is now 21 in Delaware.
by James DeChene
This week in Dover saw action in the Senate on a number of bills related to business. First, SS2 for SB50 directs money from the bond bill to be issued to DelTech, along with bonding authority, to help address the college’s deferred maintenance issues reported on before. The bill’s main difference from the original SB50 is the removal of the statewide property tax provision as a revenue source.
Also in the Senate was SS1 for SB48, which mandates journeyman and apprentice craft training for those who work on publics works projects. The Chamber, ABC, Drive Delaware Forward, and others, worked unsuccessfully to modify the bill so that its passage would not adversely impact small businesses, or those businesses located where no training programs exist within reasonable distances (in some cases, apprentices must travel 80 miles each way to receive certified training). The bill now moves to the House where efforts to modify the bill will continue.
Next week the General Assembly is out of session for JFC and Bond break. Upon their return, work will continue on criminal justice reforms, including the introduction of a revamp of Delaware’s criminal code.
Stay updated on legislative issues through our Chamber Action Network video series as well. Sponsored by Ruggerio Willson.