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Legislators begin to form 2012 agenda

The 146th session of the Delaware General Assembly resumes January 10th. The first half of the two-year session resulted in passage of landmark legislation that allowed civil unions between same-sex couples. Medical marijuana legislation also was enacted, and the state dealt with fluctuating revenue projections by first hammering out a plan to reform state employee pension and health care that’s projected to lower those costs – then, as revenues surged, several one-time initiatives were proposed that were designed to put more Delawareans to work.

What’s in store for 2012? It’s an election year, and the first year of campaigning under new legislative district maps redrawn in the redistricting process. Money matters may lead the agenda once again, although lawmakers still have other pressing issues to address.

When it comes to the state budget, Medicaid appears to first and foremost on lawmakers’ minds this year.

“It’s probably number one,” said House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach).

Over the last “six, seven years” – which included Schwartzkopf’s four year stint on the budget writing Joint Finance Committee – he said it has become clear that Medicaid costs are increasingly being shifted from the federal government to the states. That’s left lawmakers with a choice – absorb the costs or cut services.

“For several years, we decided to absorb those costs,” said Schwartzkopf. “We have to look at Medicaid and we have to look at some type of way to reform some of what we do.”

At the same time, Schwartzkopf hears from doctors who have concerns about Medicaid reimbursements and the growing caseload of Medicaid patients – issues, he said, needed to be treated delicately.

“You’re dealing with some of the most vulnerable, most needy of society,” Schwartzkopf said.

“With unemployment where it is, a lot of people have chosen Medicaid as their medical provider,” Senate Majority Leader Patty Blevins (D-Elsmere) said. She is hopeful growth in the economy and in jobs may bring down the Medicaid enrollment numbers, but “right now it’s very expensive.”

House Minority Leader Greg Lavelle (R-Sharpley) believes the state also faces other budget concerns. He said in addition to losing more and more federal stimulus dollars as various grants and programs expire, “we’ll have a full year of state pay increases next year as opposed to just half-a-year this year, so there are lots of things that are going to take up what at this point seems to be anemic tax receipt growth.”

The major state spending obligations continue to be health and social services, education, and the state prison system. Discussion is also likely to continue this year concerning ways to address the Transportation Trust Fund, which depends on a variety of funding sources to fund infrastructure projects.

Governor Jack Markell will unveil his Fiscal Year 2013 budget proposal January 26th.

Money is not the only issue of concern among lawmakers, however.

In late September 2011, Governor Jack Markell signed an emergency order to ban the sale of synthetic drugs known as bath salts. Without legislative action, that temporary ban would expire. Senate Bill 160 would amend the Uniform Substance Control Act to make the ban permanent. It would also redefine what constitutes a “designer drug” in order to combat the development of new designer drugs.

The stop-gap measure last fall came after police and hospitals were reporting increasing numbers of incidents involving violent people under the influence of bath salts.

“These drugs, bath salts, are highly, highly addictive,” Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden said at a recent event in Dover that introduced the legislation.

“This is not a one-time high drug,” added Cheryl Flowers, an emergency room nurse at Kent General Hospital. “These patients, particularly younger patients, are taking this drug and are coming into our emergency department very, very violent.”

Flowers and other medical professionals stated that since the emergency order was enacted, incidents and hospitalizations involving designer drugs have dropped off dramatically.

The measure sponsored by State Senator Bethany Hall-Long (D-Middletown ) and Representative Rebecca Walker (D-Middletown) would make possession of such drugs a misdemeanor. Possession with the intent to distribute would carry a potential prison term of up to eight years, with additional penalties in the event of prior offenses, resisting arrest, or possessing the drugs near a school or a park.

Additionally this year, lawmakers are expected to discuss enhanced penalties for criminals convicted of home-invasion type robberies. Police across the state, especially in rural areas, have reported an increase in such crimes, where access is gained to a home while the occupants are there and they are forced to locate their cash, jewelry and other valuables – sometimes being assaulted during the process.

State Senator David Lawson (R-Marydel) is expected to propose legislation to increase the minimum prison term for a first-degree burglary conviction from two years to 15 years if the crime involves a home invasion.

“That has been a crime that has continued to escalate in our area,” Representative Debra Heffernan (D-Bellefonte) said.

Several new bills also were pre-filed for introduction in the House of Representatives days before the session.

Public officers – defined as state lawmakers, statewide elected officials, candidates for public office, judges, cabinet secretaries, division directors and others – could face new income disclosure requirements, including the obligation to report whether any relatives work for a state-funded organization. Under another bill, lobbyists also would be required to disclose their service with any non-profit, community association or trade organization.

Another bill to be introduced this year would establish a process for settling a municipal election which results in a tie, or if it has to be rescheduled due to an emergency.

Lavelle also said his caucus will produce bills that deal with the costs of doing business in Delaware and the impact of state regulations. He also would like to address a proposal to bar state lawmakers from being employed by the state.

Democrats hold majorities of 26-15 in the House and 14-7 in the Senate.