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EDITORIAL: Carney’s final days in office offer some surprises

Katie Tabeling

Gov. John Carney during the annual State of the State address at Legislative Hall in Dover in March. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

Gov. John Carney has been having a dynamic final year in office.

From the casual observer of Delaware politics, most of the drama has been focused on the General Assembly and its changing leadership with House Speaker Valerine Longhurst’s first official session at the dais. 

In addition, the Democratic Party saw more young and diverse lawmakers step into the chamber. We also have an exciting gubernatorial election shaping up with the primary coming in September and the general election in November.

Carney’s final spending plan was on level with the previous one as he weighed how to handle the rising health care costs as well as state retiree benefits. His final state address before the General Assembly focused on his hopes for education reform, notably with added funds for subsidized child care and early childhood education, as well as teacher salaries.

But still, I’ve found myself surprised at some of the bold choices the governor has made in the last six months. When you think of a two-term governor in the final year of office, they mostly shift to caretaker mode and much of what we see from Carney reflects that.

I can’t help but focus on a few surprising moves he’s made that show he’s not quite willing to step down without making some bold decisions. For me, the first came in December when he first directed his administration to start negotiations with the U.S. Wind on bringing the transmission lines ashore in Delaware for a long-planned (and controversial) wind farm that Maryland will reap the credits for.

Of course, the second was publicly supporting House Bill 350 which has the potential to shift the entire landscape of Delaware’s highly competitive health care industry. When Longhurst first proposed the bill in March, which has since been amended with input from the Delaware Healthcare Association, Carney said, “if we fail to address the issue, health care spending will crowd out funding for public schools, affordable housing, child care, and other priorities important in the lives of Delawareans.”

Given the long fight HB 350 triggered in legislative hall, and the continuing debate in southern Delaware on offshore wind, I had to wonder: was Carney viewing 2024 as his “moonshot” year?

I spoke to Russell McCabe, a Delaware historian who served in the state Public Archives for 30 years, about what past governors have done in their lame duck year.

“Usually, it’s about broadcasting their legacy at that point and less about the decisions they will make,” McCabe said. “The interesting challenge we’ve started to see in the last 15 to 20 years is that the political dynamic has completely shifted. Before the 2008 elections, we had the governor’s seat and the senate held by the Democrats and the Senate controlled by the Republicans.”

As all three seats have been controlled by the Democrats, it raises questions about the need to negotiate across the aisle for the good of the citizens – and where the governor stands in control of his own party. McCabe pointed to Gov. Pete DuPont as one of the most iconic  governors that worked with both parties to solve Delaware’s economic struggles with the Financial Center Development Act, which spurred many banks to open up shop in the First State.

But in the final years in office? McCabe said the governor’s job has been mostly focusing on stewardship and statecraft than anything. And tying up loose ends.

“We haven’t had many recent governors deal with a major crisis, and Carney has been focused on the health care benefits issues and financial matters,” McCabe said. “He’s made sincere efforts to maintain that stability, and his biggest legacy may be the budget stabilization fund.”

When you ask the man himself, he said it’s just following through on initiatives he’s embarked on a while back.

“I don’t really think much about what I do and how it affects whether I’m elected or not,” Carney told me, referring to his current move to run for mayor of Wilmington. “I just try and figure out the right thing to do and then do it. It’s hard.”

Carney said that he long planned to address the ballooning cost of health care when he first introduced the health care spending benchmark in 2018. In fact, he planned to come with some mechanism – maybe not quite HB 350 – but COVID-19 made the issue seem less pressing.

“I said we couldn’t do this when the hospitals were so stressed about this. It’s not the best timing [to make the benchmark more meaningful] because it’s the last year, but we’re able to convince legislators that it was important, in part because we were successful in changing retiree health benefits,” he said.

When it comes to the question of Delaware’s role in offshore wind? He said it was something he was keen on in 2008 when the state first studied the issue. After attending a meeting in Rehoboth Beach 12 years ago, there were people for the project. A current bill authored by Sen. Stephanie Hansen will look to position Delaware in a more active role in the wind energy field.

Carney himself may not see 2024 as his moonshot year instead of a lame duck era, but he did say that in his years of politics, he has to remain true to himself. And how he sees himself is a moderate Democrat that worked for fiscal stability and job creation.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that you don’t always agree with people,” the governor said. “But if people trust that you’re trying to do the right thing, I think it’s a better way.”

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