Economy, tourism focus for legislators

The biggest battle in the Delaware General Assembly this year will be the economy, according to state Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-38th) and Sen. George H. Bunting (D-20th).

Both small-businessmen, the local legislators said they will continue to look for ways to strengthen and promote small business as the 2010 legislative session gets under way, as it is one of the top employers in the state, and jobs are at a premium. That will be done by both looking at what went wrong, what went right and finding ways to come out ahead, they said.

“We have to deal with the funding problem, the spending problem in the state of Delaware,” said Hocker. Making the common political analogy of a strong economy as a four-legged stool, he said, “Two legs are completely cut out from under us, and we’ve got two weak legs.”

According to Hocker, top priorities for the upcoming legislative session will be seeing where “we went wrong” concerning manufacturing jobs and how to get some of those back, as well as strengthening the financial sector that once was booming in the state.

Bunting also referenced those challenges, saying that the “Four C’s,” of Delaware – cars, credit cards, chemicals and chickens have all taken a hit. As chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he works closely with poultry farmers and said he has seen the impacts firsthand. Strengthening that pivotal sector of the economy, while being cognizant of environmental challenges, is a top priority to the senator.

“There are 5,000 poultry jobs, and when multiplied, it equals out to be about 35,000 related to the industry,” explained Bunting of the growers and poultry-plant workers and their extended impact. That includes anyone associated with the industry, from tire manufacturers to repairmen to fuel providers.

He said keeping clean air and water is a priority, as is keeping the industry profitable. “And I am sure they can with new technology and waste management and new ways to recycle chicken manure. It’s a tremendous challenge,” Bunting said.

Both legislators expressed disappointment and concern over the federal government’s health reform bill. Although it has not been finalized, both had concerns over particular states being subsidized by the government in regard to expanded eligibility for Medicaid coverage and how that would affect a small state like Delaware, which will, in turn, have to pick up some of the tab.

“I have done the best I can not to lay off people during this economy,” said Hocker, who employs many people at his supermarkets and hardware store in Ocean View and Clarksville. He said that, with the federal health reform bill the way it is written now, he would be forced to look into layoffs.

“We just cannot afford it. It’s going to end up being a natural disaster,” Hocker said.

Because the economy is a prevailing issue, Bunting has his concerns with the federal health reform bill, too.

“We don’t know the finality of it yet,” emphasized Bunting. “As a small employer, I’m not sure what it will do one way or another. It’s a great disappointment. It’s hard to know the end product and hard to find the truth. I am disappointed with Congress that it’s going right down party lines. It’s federal, but it is causing us problems by doing that.”

Both legislators said they are excited about NRG, the owner of the Indian River Generating Station, buying wind-farm developer Bluewater Wind. With the more than $500 million that will be spent on improving air quality, the plant will be able to go from “one of the dirtiest to one of the cleanest” in the nation, according to Bunting. And the purchase expands the company’s renewable energy portfolio.

Bunting said specific issues he will dealing with in the coming session include legislation concerning manufactured housing; working with social issues, also involving housing; and working with charitable organizations, such as Unite Sussex, as the human need in the area continues to grow.

“We are trying to show people what’s out there and what is available,” Bunting said.

He also plans on working on legislation that would prohibit newly elected public officials to then get a state job – something he said happens often now.

“People are retired or come to legislative hall, and they are in a position to cherry-pick,” he said. “You should never be able to do that. If a teacher or an administrator gets elected and comes to public office, that’s different. But to come to public office and then go looking for a job within the State of Delaware, that’s not appropriate. It’s double-dipping, or triple-dripping, at its worst.”

Hocker and Bunting agreed that tourism needs to be strengthened, as it is one of Delaware’s strongest economic forces, as well.

“Tourism is the strongest leg we have,” said Hocker of the local area. “Most of the jobs are created through small business, and we are the worst state in the nation for small business. The tax package created last year weakened that. We definitely need a job market in this state,” he added. “We can strengthen the businesses we have now to help them hire people, and help new businesses start up.”

Hocker also said cutting the size of state government is an issue, as well as safety for youth and senior citizens. He said strengthening laws that are on the books and making changes within the court system can help with safety, as can looking at the state historically, to see where things can be improved. Bunting added that looking at the formula of “equalization” of funding in schools should be a priority, as it is a huge issue in a small state.

Hocker said he feels workman’s compensation insurance – another issue for small-business owners – is on the right track after several years of work.

“It took several years,” he emphasized. “We went from one of the worst [states] to about mid-way. We have done a good job in the last two years. But, why did we wait so late?” He also said unemployment insurance is a concern for small-business owners.

Bunting said much of his work is ongoing, and it is nice to see things like the Indian River Inlet Bridge moving forward. He said it also seems that real estate is starting to pick up for the people who do have money to invest. He concurred with Hocker that tourism is a priority and beach replenishment is a big part of that.

“It’s one of the driving factors of our economy,” he said. “It’s Economics 101. When you look at the benchmark of real estate values and jobs tied to it…”

Although the economy is still an issue and the prevailing factor overall, the senator said he is convinced that there is more good than bad happening.

“I feel very positive about what is happening,” Bunting continued. “I like to look at the positive side. I deal with tremendous people problems, but I also get to see the good things that are going to happen.”

For more information on the Delaware General Assembly or to view agendas for the upcoming session as they are posted, visit online.