State’s ‘bottle bill’ repealed, eliminating deposit

While most of the focus of the waning hours of the legislative session was on the state’s finances, several pieces of legislation were considered and cleared the General Assembly Tuesday night, June 30, into Wednesday morning, July 1.

Lawmakers voted to repeal the “bottle bill,” a 5-cent deposit placed on bottled beverages that could be redeemed if the consumer returned the empty bottle to the store. Rep. John J. Viola, who sponsored House Bill 201, said that, in an age of single-stream curbside recycling, the 25-year-old bottle bill had outlived its usefulness.

“I spoke to distributors, stores, residents and others and found that the deposit was not effective at improving recycling. None of the three surrounding states have a bottle bill, and their recycling rate is higher than ours,” said Viola, D-Newark. “Single-stream, curbside recycling is the future for recycling, not a nickel deposit. People like me, who do curbside recycling, don’t even bother bringing the bottles back to the store. We just place them in the container, so we lose money.”

“This law has cost consumers tens of millions of dollars – if not, hundreds of millions of dollars – 5 cents at a time,” Viola added. “When you go to the store and buy a bottled drink, it doesn’t cost $1.25 like it says. The computer adds 5 cents at the register. It’s my hope that stores get rid of this hidden tax with the passage of this bill.”

Viola said he hopes that the state will focus its efforts on improving and increasing recycling efforts throughout the state.

Under HB 201, the bottle bill will be repealed effective Sept. 1, 2010. Distributors are required to provide dealers with notice of the effective date of the repeal and place a public notice in retail locations from Jan. 1, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2010.

HB 201 passed the House 35-3 and the Senate 12-6.

Other bills that were approved during the last night of the most recent legislative session included:

• House Bill 253, which overhauls the Violent Crimes Compensation Board, a state commission charged with providing financial assistance to violent crime victims. The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously.

Sponsored by Rep. John A. Kowalko, D-Newark, House Bill 253 was developed by and sponsored by the members of the Joint Sunset Committee, a legislative panel that reviews various state boards and commissions and determines what, if any, changes need to be made.

The General Assembly established the Victim’s Compensation Fund in 1974 to provide a method of meeting the hardships imposed upon the innocent victims of certain crimes by compensating them financially for losses sustained as a result of those crimes. Funding for the fund is generated by a surcharge on fines and penalties imposed by the courts. The Violent Crimes Compensation Board considered nearly 800 claims in the 2008 fiscal year, disbursing $2.51 million to victims.

Under HB 253, the Violent Crimes Compensation Board will be renamed the Victim’s Compensation Assistance Program, and its duties and employees will be transferred from the Administrative Office of the Courts to the state Department of Justice. The executive director and investigative staff will award benefit compensation to victims based on existing criteria, streamlining the process to get the funds to victims more efficiently.

The five-member board will act as an appeals board, which will have the power to affirm, reverse or modify the agency’s claims decisions. Members must come from all three counties and the city of Wilmington, providing representation on the board from the entire state.

“We welcome the addition of the Victim Compensation Assistance Program to the Delaware Department of Justice and will work swiftly to implement this legislation in order to enhance critical statewide support to victims of crime,” said Chief Deputy Attorney General Richard S. Gebelein.

The bill also will have a cost-savings aspect. By merging the board with the Department of Justice, it will eliminate the need to rent office space, saving $53,000 annually. Also, board members who are appointed or re-appointed will be paid $100 per meeting. Currently, board members receive $10,000 annually, while the vice chair receives $11,000 and the chair receives $12,000 annually.

• House Bill 197, which would create a two-year pilot program for camera and video speed enforcement near a school or work zone, cleared the House early on July 1.

Rep. Gerald L. Brady, D-Wilmington West, who sponsored HB 197, said the system that would be used is similar to the red-light cameras, which the city of Wilmington pioneered when he was a city councilman. The technology is the same as E-Zpass, which measures rate, distance and speed using photos.

HB 197 would authorize any Delaware police agency to set up a camera and video system within a quarter-mile of a school or construction zones. Only vehicles traveling at least 11 miles per hour faster than the posted speed limit would be assessed a violation. Motorists cited would be issued a civil assessment with a maximum fine of $50.

Brady said the purpose of the pilot program is to validate the program as an effective technology in the most critical zones before determining whether it could be applied to other areas. According to the 2009 AAA Public Opinion Poll in Delaware, 66 percent of drivers supported the use of speed cameras in school zones and 47 percent supported their installation in work zones.

HB 197 will go to the Senate for consideration when the legislative session resumes in January.

Local Realtors championed bills on condos, opposed rental tax

Action on bills impacting the state’s Realtors and property owners included:

• The Senate and House passed and Gov. Jack Markell has since signed HB 156 and HB 183, legislation that changes the Delaware Uniform Common Interest Ownership Act and the Unit Property Act and will go into effect on Oct. 1, 2009. The bills were strongly supported by the Sussex County Association of Realtors (SCAoR).

The laws require sellers of real estate to provide condominium documents and a condominium questionnaire, in conjunction with the property management companies, and to do both prior to final signatures on contracts.

The bills also standardize many aspects of collecting the documents, including: (1) limiting the fees that property management companies can charge to no more than $250 ($200 for the form completion and an extra $50 if paper copying must be done); (2) limiting the time of response from property management groups to 10 days or no fee can be charged; (3) increasing the dollar amounts of condo or HOA fees to $500 annually as a threshold for compliance with the condo documentation; and (4) increasing the number of units from 12 to 20 for mandatory inclusion under the laws.

• HB 188, the Rental Tax Initiative, was left on the table in committee and was not resurrected by the end of the session. The bill would have added a 5 percent tax on seasonal rental properties (properties with non-renewable rental agreements for less than 150 days in a year), “including but not limited to seasonal rental properties, corporate housing and condominium rentals,” less any amount of tax already imposed by a county or municipality. SCAoR opposed the change.

• SB 49 and HB 70, which prohibit new covenant or deed restrictions from prohibiting or limiting rooftop solar systems or wind-energy systems, respectively, were passed by both houses and have been signed by the governor. SCAoR championed amendments to both bills that permit existing restrictions on both types of systems to remain in place and be enforced.

• HB 149, which was passed and signed by the governor, limits compensation that may be received by mortgage loan brokers and licensed lenders who engage in mortgage loan modification services.

Markell lauds passage of items supporting agenda

The legislature approved significant reforms in two top priority areas for the Markell administration – education and energy – and passed several other pieces of legislation that address significant public policy areas for the administration.

The administration’s legislative agenda included:

• Eliminating the Delaware Student Testing Program;

• Launching a pilot program to reward high-performing teachers;

• Making government more open and efficient by expanding the use of videoconferencing and extending the Freedom of Information Act to cover the legislature;

• Outlawing discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation;

• Ensuring Delawareans can choose their own hospital visitors; and

• Extending unemployment benefits for Delawareans hit hard by the economic downturn.

All of these issues were addressed in some way by the legislature this session.

“Recognizing that Delaware cannot have the world-class economy we need unless we make our education system even better, we have taken significant steps to further improve this system and help students be competitive in the global economy,” Markell said.

“The competitive economy also demands we have a new sense of the link between environmental wealth and economic health. Environmental sustainability must be at the forefront of our public policy discussions. The effect of these laws will be new jobs, money saved and a cleaner environment. Thanks to the action of the past six months, we can look back at this as the time when we laid the foundation for decades of economic growth and a cleaner environment.”