Gray talks taxes, jails and infrastructure projects at meeting

Citizens were invited to sip some coffee and learn about upcoming legislative action on Jan. 30 at a public meeting held by state Rep. Ron Gray’s (R-38th). He started with Delaware’s state budget, which is expected to see a nearly $140 million shortfall this year.

“In the next few weeks, you’re going to see almost all state agencies asking for new fees,” Gray said.

He said he was concerned about stormwater regulations scheduled to be implemented in January. He said 14 Southern legislators had requested that the regulations only be piloted in New Castle County, fearing that Sussex County will pay highly into a statewide pot that would fund projects heavily in the north.

As agencies have some power to create regulations, state Sen. Gerald Hocker (R-20th) in 2013 proposed Senate Bill 74, which would require state agencies to write cost-benefit statements, keeping the General Assembly informed of their proposals, potential cost to the citizens and intended benefits. He introduced a similar bill in the House in 2011, as representative for the 38th District.

Gov. Jack Markell in 2012 issued an executive order for every agency to review regulations that are three years old or older. Of 385 government regulations studied, Gray said, 144 were amended or deleted after public comment.

That process is to repeat every three years. Hocker was not satisfied with that.

Markell is also proposing a gasoline tax increase of 10 cents per gallon, which would be the first increase in the state’s gas tax in years. Gray said Delaware currently levies 23 cents per gallon. Meanwhile, Maryland is looking to increase its gas tax gradually from 27 to 43 cents per gallon.

Pennsylvania — which is undergoing an overhaul of its entire tax system that could mean its impact will vary — is adjusting rates from 41.8 to possibly 60 cents per gallon. New Jersey has no plans to increase its tax of 14.5 cents per gallon, although Gray noted that that state has other fees to counter that lesser amount.

Gray said the American Society of Civil Engineers encourages infrastructure investments, which Markell has said would be a focus of the added revenue from an increased Delaware gas tax.

“You don’t want bridges to fail,” Gray acknowledged, although he wondered if Delaware could possibly borrow more money but at a lower interest rate.

Gray also noted that he and the Small Business Caucus had opposed a (now-enacted) bill to raise the state’s minimum wage by $1, to $8.25, by 2015.

He said a chocolate company had described its situation, with an owner working 60 hours weekly with two part-time employees.

“‘If we have to raise wages, we won’t stay in business,’” Gray recalled the business owner saying.

Minimum wage often applies to new hires or seasonal workers — usually teenagers who are learning about the work force, being responsible and showing up on time, Gray said. As a result, Gray said, he proposed an amendment that would allow a lower wage for minors in the first six months of working in a seasonal capacity.

(According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2013 report, nationally, teenagers — those 16 to 19 — made up about a quarter (24.1 percent) of hourly paid workers making $7.25 or less, or 31 percent of those right at the federal minimum wage, with those 20 to 24 making up 26.5 and 24.1 percent of those workers, respectively. Those older than 24 were 45 percent to 49 percent of federal minimum-wage workers.)

“We feel it’s a friendly amendment, especially for small businesses,” Gray said of the move to allow a lower minimum wage for young workers. “We don’t need to lose positions. We need to keep people employed at all levels.”

In other news:

• At the State of the State address in January, Gray was honored as part of Markell’s official escort (two senators and two representatives, a Republican and Democrat from each house). Although they don’t agree on politics, Gray said the governor “is a nice guy, very congenial.”

• Surveyors could gain some breathing room with HB 115. As an engineer, Gray said his liability disappears in six years if he retires from the field and something goes wrong. Surveyors are currently liable for life, so Gray supports HB 115’s six-year limit for surveyors, as well.

“They have no control about field conditions later,” or if someone else moves a marker after the surveyor leaves a job, Gray said.

• Gray acknowledged that he voted against allowing same-sex marriage in Delaware, which passed in 2013. “I felt marriage was between one man and one woman,” he said.

• He also voted against the bill prohibiting discrimination and hate crimes on the basis of gender identity. Nicknamed the “bathroom bill” by opponents, citing one portion of the non-discrimination law, it was also signed in 2013.

“If you feel like being a woman or man that day … we can’t stop you,” Gray said.

(An amendment actually clarified that gender identity may be demonstrated by consistent and uniform assertion of the identity or other evidence that it is part of a person’s core identity.)

• Gray said he is brainstorming the possibility of creating a regional police force to improve coverage. For unincorporated Sussex County, the nearest troopers come from Georgetown and Lewes, which can be a distance. For funding, Gray has considered a fee on each house, similar to that in assessed in Bethany Beach, South Bethany, Fenwick Island and Sea Colony, that go to support the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company’s EMS unit.

“We need to provide better coverage,” said Gray, encouraging people to contact him with ideas.

• A resident asked about the Holt’s Landing floating dock, which washed away in a storm. Hocker has already earmarked $300,000 for that project. It just needs to be done, he said.

• Gray asked how people felt about the Social Security office moving from Georgetown to Lewes. He said he didn’t know the exact reason for the move, wondering if the lease ran out and they found a better location, but he felt Georgetown is a more convenient, centralized location. (Social Security Administration officials have said the move was the result of a competitive lease procurement process.)

• One person suggested a stop sign or traffic signal be added on Route 26, for Windmill Drive traffic to turn left onto Route 26. But another man cited the traffic backups caused at West Avenue’s traffic light, and Hocker said, “It’s very hard to get a light … for everyone who wants one, there are 10 who don’t.”

• Fred Hudson Road has long been expecting a right-turn lane onto Route 1, but every time Gray asked Delaware Department of Transportation, he said they plan to start “next month.” After a while, he stopped asking. Hocker said the permits should all be in place, and he was told “any day now.”

• Asked about incarceration, Gray said it costs up to $35,000 annually to jail an individual. He mentioned other countries where the family is actually responsible for the cost of a person’s imprisonment.

“If we can rehabilitate these individuals, get them back into society” without them becoming repeat offenders, that would help immensely, he said, but “I don’t know what the solution is.”

After an audience suggestion that more money go toward education, Hocker said one-third of the budget already does.

“We need to spend money better,” Gray said, to help get kids off the streets, away from drugs, and possibly develop youth programs led by Delaware’s “loads of retirees looking for things to do.”

• When asked about energy on Route 26, Gray said recent fracking has led to increased natural gas coming down Route 113 toward Maryland. “It really is a clean fuel,” he asserted. Residents could tap off a main pipe, just like water, he said, but first natural gas must actually come to Route 26.

• One resident asked where budget cuts are. He also suggested tax cuts for retirees, who are hardest hit by taxes, as many are on a fixed income.

• A resident on Route 54 himself, Gray agreed that the road is dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists from Route 1 to about the Route 54 bridge.