[caption id="attachment_230239" align="alignnone" width="1200"] House Speaker Valerie Longhurst and Senate Pro Tem David Sokola discuss the top concerns in 2024 are the operating budget, housing and healthcare. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
DOVER — When House Speaker Valerie Longhurst was elected as the first woman to lead the Delaware House of Representatives, she will usher in a new chapter in the First State’s Legislative Hall: where all House leadership positions are held by women.“I’m excited, and I’m proud to be serving with [House Majority Leader] Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown and [House Majority Whip] Rep. Kerri Harris,” Longhurst told the Delaware Business Times. “We’ve been spending a lot of time getting to know each other to figure out each other’s leadership style to best navigate the General Assembly. I think we’re ready.”It also signals a possible change of business, as the Democratic Caucus has now seen major leadership changeovers in the past three years. Former House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf served for 11 years in the job, and often found himself at odds with the increasing number of progressive representatives in the house. Senate Pro Tem David Sokola took over the top seat in late 2020, which swept in legislators aiming for a more progressive agenda.“I have 15 members in my caucus and they’re all incredibly ambitious,” Sokola told DBT. “It’s hard to name what I’d say the top three priorities are, because each of them have their own priorities and some probably overlap.”The Democratic party has been the dominant force in politics in Delaware and today controls both chambers. But the party has increasingly become split into moderate and progressive factions over the years. The 2024 governor race could be shaping up into a referendum on the model of modern Delaware Democrats with Lt. Bethany Hall-Long facing self-proclaimed outsider New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer.However, Longhurst noted that she has worked in the statehouse for at least two decades under three speakers each with their own style. While she believes the first year will have a learning curve, she has experience under her belt. Longhurst was elected majority whip in 2008 and became majority leader in 2012.“I want to take the best from [the previous leaders]. I do believe in reaching across the aisle,” she said. “We have to work together and not in separate silos. We have to look through the lenses of the people of the state of Delaware not through the lenses of individual lenses.”Here’s a look at what Sokola and Longhurst identified as priorities when lawmakers start the 2023-24 legislative session:The FY 2025 BudgetEven in her first year in the top job in the House, Longhurst easily named her top priority: the operating budget and the bond bill.“It’s always the top priority, and we know we’re going to have a tough year,” Longhurst said. “Our revenues are below what we saw in FY 2023, and Medicaid and Medicare is reverting back to our responsibility. We also have to factor in commitments we’ve made in the past.”For months, the independent panel of analysts that study Delaware’s economic indicators had been warning of possible tighter budgets for Gov. John Carney’s final year in office. This week, the panel set Delaware’s budget limit to $6.4 billion for next fiscal year, a roughly 3.3% decrease over the current fiscal year’s total approved appropriations.Sokola, who spoke with DBT ahead of the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council report, was optimistic despite repeated warnings of a recession, especially from national indicators. He pointed to the Federal Reserve maintaining interest rates around 5.5% and possible interest cuts in the new year.“That shows while rates haven’t changed, there's a bit more competition in the industry to get people housing,” he said. “[Delaware] has had record-breaking surpluses, but that has to do with one-time funds.” Delaware has seen roughly $925 million in American Rescue Plan Act Funds, and $280 million has been assigned but has yet to be spent, according to state data. But last year the state included funding for raises for teachers and education staff, as well as a second year of salary increases for state employees.Longhurst also points that the bond bill will present a challenge as in the past two budget cycles, the legislature has considered capital expense funding that “probably not going to be there this year.” With the budget stabilization fund, it also serves as a cushion in case of emergencies, but she said the goal isn’t to spend it down.But the prep work in educating legislatures has already started, she said. “Legislators have been working with the governor to see if some items can be baked into the budget, including those that we haven’t accomplished,” Longhurst added. “I think what people have learned is to have a wait-and-see approach…there's a lot of issues out in our districts that we want to fix with the governor’s support. But we have to navigate that and how to be fiscally responsible and prepared for tough economic times. So when we are hit with what's coming ahead of us, we're prepared for it.”HousingWith the conversation among state and business leaders turning to affordable housing, it may not be a surprise to learn that Sokola believes there may be many housing bills this session. To keep up with the rate the state is now growing, 24,000 units will need to be built by 2030, according to the 2023 Delaware Housing Needs Assessment.In early December, the House and the Senate hosted a joint session to pour over the recent data not only from the Delaware State Housing Authority report, but health need survey as well as various homelessness reports. “In some ways, I’m happy we have the people we have in the Senate right now. I rely on Sens. Bryan Townsend and Russ Huxtable because they each ran for office with an emphasis on housing and have done some work on it,” Sokola said.The senate pro tem expects to see some proposed legislation come from listening tours Huxable and Sen. Elizabeth Lockman are holding throughout the state. Sokola said that other lawmakers are working to expand realty transfer tax requirements for first-time homebuyers, as well as renter protections.“I’m a little hesitant to say what the next best step is, when it comes between more money or some kind of incentive,” Sokola said. “I know in New Castle County, there’s some incentives for that, and we don’t have the data on how successful it is. It’s become an issue that’s lit a fire under people who weren’t used to working together to make progress.”Other mattersWhen it comes to other priorities, both leaders were hard-pressed to come up with a short list. Longhurst named health care as a constant matter, namely mental and behavioral health. But given the recent American Institutes for Research assessment on Delaware schools — namely that funding needs to be increased by at least $590 million — the legislature may once again consider how to best bolster education.“We need to make sure our teachers are prepared, and have all the tools they need and to be paid what they should be paid,” Longhurst said. “I personally think we have to invest in teachers to get the investment we want in our children. We have to start building the pipeline to get more teachers into the profession. That’s imperative to get us out of this.”For Sokola, he noted that his side of the caucus was “incredibly ambitious” and possibly had members work on overlapping matters. Some members would likely file bills that focused on abortion access in Delaware, possibly directing insurance companies that operate in Delaware to cover the procedure. Other possible bills could be in expanding treatments through pharmacies.Sokola also pointed to Delaware’s future in green energy, particularly with the Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub (MACH2).“I hope that this is something that will reduce pollution generated everywhere in the country. Hydrogen is really exciting,” he said. “I mean, you can run vehicles with it. It's a really interesting opportunity for us at this time.”
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