Chamber Highlights Pros and Cons of the First Half of the 148th General Assembly
By James DeChene
Transportation Infrastructure Funding
In the aftermath of last year’s failed measure to raise the gas tax to help fund infrastructure projects, the goal this year was for the General Assembly to find $50 million to dedicate to infrastructure funding, with Governor Markell pledging to borrow another $50 million. After spending months negotiating on how to come up with the required money, the General Assembly passed legislation that will raise just under $24 million by increasing a number of DMV fees as well as the document fee associated with new car sales. In addition, $5 million of DOT operating expenses was transferred out of the Transportation Trust Fund responsible for funding infrastructure projects. As part of the negotiated deal, the money will be placed into a “lock box” dedicated for spending on transportation, the threshold for prevailing wage projects was raised, and prevailing wage will not be applied to the $20 million allocated to municipal street aid and the Community Transportation Fund, both of which fund local transportation improvements, such as filling potholes. The State Chamber expressed early support for all three add-ons, and lobbied diligently in support of a larger overall package that would have raised the goal of $50 million, and we hope that further action is taken in 2016 to help overcome the expected $780 million in anticipated shortfall over the next six years in much needed infrastructure projects.
Beginning to Transfer DOT Operating Expenses from Transportation Trust Fund
In 1991, due to the recession, the General Assembly moved a portion of DELDOT operating expenses out of the General Fund and into the Transportation Trust Fund in order to balance the budget without resorting to a tax increase. Over the intervening years, with increases in salaries, retirements, health care expenses and other costs continually rising, the ratio of operating expenses to actual money used to fund projects has increased dramatically, resulting in an estimated $780 million shortfall over the next 6 years for transportation projects. The General Assembly took the first step of transferring $5 million of operating expenses back into the General Fund, and has indicated the goal of both continuing the process, and increasing the amount transferred, in future years.
Two bills were passed related to how Delaware collects abandoned property, also known as escheat. Currently representing 14% of the state’s operating budget, this $500+ million revenue stream has come under fire from the business community at large over the last few years, resulting in a taskforce that met over the summer and came up with many of the proposals that were contained in these bills. They include limiting the total number of audits any one outside contractor can be assigned and requires all contracts with such contract auditors to assure that they will not employ or compensate senior officials from the Department of Finance involved with their work for two years after such officials leave state employment. It also directs the Secretary of Finance to prepare and promulgate a detailed manual containing procedural guidelines for the conduct of Delaware unclaimed property examinations and to update its regulations accordingly. The second bill shortens significantly the “look back” period from 1981 to 1991, and going forward will be a rolling 22 year “look back” starting in 2017. The bill also changes how companies can be audited, specifying they must first be offered the opportunity to enter a Voluntary Disclosure Agreement program. The State Chamber was involved in the process from the outset, and is pleased to see sustentative modifications made to the program.
Studies on Revenues and Spending
The Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council (DEFAC) was directed by Executive Order to create a taskforce charged with reviewing Delaware’s revenue streams and how to plan for the future. The taskforce issued a lengthy report outlining ways in which to increase revenues to keep up with state spending. During the process, it was lamented that no similar taskforce was created to review state expenditures, and a concession was made by budget writers this year to have Pew Charitable Trusts study how and what the state spends money on in an effort to make government more efficient. That study should be completed in time for next year’s budget process.
As mentioned above the budget this year was a difficult process for the General Assembly to undertake, and ultimately did little to plan for the next fiscal year. The State Chamber was disappointed that one-time monies stemming from bank mortgage settlements were used to fill budget gaps, that there was no requirement that state employees contribute more to their health insurance costs, and that no serious review of overall state spending was undertaken this year. The State Chamber will continue to review areas in which the state can be more effective and efficient when creating its budget.
No change to the Estate Tax
The Chamber has called for the elimination of the Estate Tax, but no action was taken this year. A disincentive to retirees, as well as a costly and inefficient program, the state has not seen the tax perform as a revenue stream in any meaningful way, and it puts Delaware at a competitive disadvantage to states like Florida.
A bill expected to be introduced next year will call for an increase in the minimum wage. This comes on the heels of a taskforce created to study low wage workers and the impact an increase in the minimum wage would have on the economy, on workers and on businesses. With impacts being felt in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles, both of which saw dramatic increases in minimum wages—up to $15 an hour, the General Assembly should look to those examples as a cautionary tale before considering a mandated wage hike, and instead look to how businesses like Walmart and Target have already raised their minimum wages to above the Federal level as the economy has improved.
Adjustments to PIT, Corporate Franchise Tax and Gross Receipts Tax
Already on the table is a proposal to add two top tiers of personal income tax levels as well as a proposal to increase corporate franchise tax thresholds. These come on top of earlier proposals to cut corporate income tax rates, and increase the Gross receipts tax. The State Chamber is on record urging the General Assembly not to simply raise taxes to close budget holes, but to focus first and foremost on areas in state government that can be trimmed or eliminated.
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