Markell’s spending reforms fall flat

Democrats refuse to do heavy lifting

The News Journal

The proposal was to eliminate free premium-quality health insurance for couples who work for the state.

Not current employees, just husbands and wives hired in the future.

The bill moved further than virtually every fiscal reform proposed this year by Gov. Jack Markell.

The governor’s other proposed budget cuts were largely ignored by lawmakers.

When the health insurance bill came up for a vote in the Senate, the majority of the senators ducked the bill altogether, electing to avoid voting “yes” or “no” by entering a position of “not voting” into the record.

That sad showing was the only time the Senate voted on one of Markell’s fiscal reform bills.

The House never did.

No lawmaker would even agree to sponsor his proposals to make future employees pay more for health care and pensions.

“There weren’t many people willing to jump on,” House Majority Leader Pete Schwartzkopf said. “He ran into the brick wall at Legislative Hall.”

Markell, a Democratic governor in a Legislature controlled by Democrats, scored victories in other areas, such as support for environmental and economic development bills.

A day after the session ended, Markell announced a deal to bring Sallie Mae’s headquarters from Virginia to Delaware, along with 1,500 jobs.

But Markell failed to motivate lawmakers with his cost-cutting initiatives.

The cuts would have made a difference to taxpayers, Markell said, as much as $27 million this year and more than $200 million over five years.

There was no single theme to Markell’s failure to rally support for fiscal reform. A year after he fought with lawmakers over ways to balance the budget, Markell preferred to work behind the scenes.

Election-year politics played a role. Three-fourths of the General Assembly is running for re-election.

Sidestepping criticism that he couldn’t move Democratic colleagues, Markell instead highlighted bipartisan support for universal recycling and for medical reforms in response to the arrest of Lewes pediatrician Dr. Earl B. Bradley.

“We’ve agreed more than we’ve disagreed,” Markell said.

But lawmakers and political observers say those were easy wins: Everyone wants to get tough on someone accused of being a pedophile, and recycling is popular. Curbing government spending is a tougher battle.

Didn’t take hard line

Markell tried and failed to end a requirement that school resource officers must be state troopers, to eliminate old-fashioned county row offices, to abolish the Board of Parole and to shift a portion of busing costs to school districts.

Sen. Colin Bonini, a Republican, praised Markell’s cost-cutting proposals, but said he was disappointed that there wasn’t a stronger effort behind them.

“We had a Democrat Legislature, and he had the tools to get things done,” Bonini said. “He was unwilling to push to get the cuts done that he wanted to get done.”

After the first vote on the state budget, the governor refused to criticize lawmakers who had stripped his proposed cuts out.

“They did what they do,” Markell said Tuesday night. “They acted in the best interest of Delaware.”

Markell’s business background helps when he’s recruiting companies or reopening auto plants, said Samuel Hoff, political science professor at Delaware State University, but what makes sense in business may not make political sense.

Hoff pointed to Markell’s failed proposal to eliminate a mammography van and cut health screenings. The cut didn’t play well in a state with high cancer rates.

“The governor’s office does seem to be tone-deaf on certain things,” Hoff said. “That’s where I think the business background is obscuring a full political view of the possible repercussions.”

When business leaders enter politics, they often find a different set of rules, said Jeffrey Lewis, a political science professor at UCLA.

Markell is a former vice president for corporate development at Nextel.

“A lot of business decisions aren’t about building coalitions or trying to get half the members of your board of directors to go with you, plus one,” Lewis said. “The business model is, ‘I have a plan. I’m going to implement my plan, and if that plan doesn’t work out, you fire me.’ ”

That tactic doesn’t work in politics, Lewis said.

“Relative to the political process, the biggest difference would be that art of compromise,” he said.

Too late to accept deal

Eliminating the double-state share — a policy that gives couples employed by the state first-class health insurance at no cost — would have saved taxpayers $500,000 in the first year.

Schwartzkopf said he offered to sponsor the health care legislation if provisions were made to allow people at the lower end of the pay scale to pay less for their insurance than those at the higher end, a provision common in business. Markell agreed to the proposal too late in the session to get it done, Schwartzkopf said.

“Where he didn’t get some of things he wanted this year, he’ll probably get them next year because he’s made us stop and think about these things,” Schwartzkopf said.

Markell also predicted that his fiscal reforms will do better next year.

“We are going to have to continue to push, and perhaps I’m going to have to be more compelling in my explanation,” Markell said. “That’s a big responsibility for me, and I certainly accept that.”

Markell has an ideal set-up: His party controls the House and the Senate. Senate Democrats hold such a strong majority, they need only one Republican vote to pass the annual nonprofit funding bill and have a veto-proof majority on other legislation. Democrats chair and control a majority of the seats on all legislative committees, including the budget-drafting Joint Finance Committee and the Bond Bill Committee. At the county level, Republicans control the Sussex council but Democrats hold sway in New Castle and Kent.

But Markell was stifled in an attempt to eliminate two elected county row offices.

In his State of the State address, Markell called for the elimination of the Recorder of Deeds and Register of Wills. Their duties were performed by the secretary of state, Markell said. The proposal required amending the state constitution, which takes at least two years with an election occurring between votes.

The measure, sponsored by a freshman Democrat in the House, never got out of committee.

Bonini said the governor’s office didn’t come out and push for the things he wanted, even when all that was needed were members of his own party.

“He doesn’t have the political will for conflict,” Bonini said. “If you’re not willing to push for what you believe in, you’re not going to get things accomplished.”

Bonini said that because Delaware is small, strong leadership from the top is important.

“He’s focusing his attention on economic development, but for the first time in my career, we’ve had a governor who is sort of standing by and letting the Legislature do what it wants.”

Schwartzkopf, who met resistance in his own party when he pushed for gambling expansion, said he thinks the governor learned to be careful whom he criticized when things didn’t work out.

“It would be nice if you could rely on the Democrats to do everything for you when you’re the Democratic governor, but that’s not the case,” he said.

Hoff said Markell’s victory over party favorite John Carney in the 2008 Democratic primary created a division among core Democrats.

“In the same manner that Barack Obama became president fighting the machinery of his own party, so did Markell,” Hoff said. “You still have a lot of legislators in the General Assembly who supported John Carney.”

No consistent support

While a bipartisan coalition has been formed on some of the more pressing legislation, Markell struggles to get support on other issues, Hoff said.

“I don’t see the kind of consistent core support in the party for Gov. Markell,” Hoff said. “He has to worry about loyalty within the party, if there was any to begin with.”

When Markell signed the state’s $3.3 billion budget, he was flanked on either side by bleary-eyed but smiling lawmakers. There was only one Republican — Rep. Pam Thornburg, who is retiring from the Legislature this year.

Markell used the word “bipartisan” to describe votes on the budget, recycling, and economic development efforts in his end-of-the-session remarks.

But Markell’s budget signings have been notably lacking in Republicans.

Markell has run into problems with the House minority caucus, which is the only Republican group in the Legislature with enough sway to affect votes.

“He didn’t include us,” said House Minority Leader Richard Cathcart, R-Middletown. “We were a little disappointed.”

Unlike last year’s session, this year’s didn’t include clashes between Cathcart and Markell.

In 2009, Cathcart held his caucus together to shoot down every tax increase the Markell administration proposed to balance the budget until the governor’s office agreed to add a provision to reduce the size of the work force.

The standoff lasted for days and included the swapping of some sharp barbs. Markell called Republicans in the House “obstructionist” and Cathcart called the governor “crazy.”

This year, when Cathcart made an eleventh-hour request to change education funds in the nonprofit funding bill with the threat that his caucus would kill all of the grants, the administration complied quietly and quickly. The bill passed unanimously.

“In a perfect world, you would sit down with everybody and not have a letter behind them and discuss the issues and have a consensus,” Schwartzkopf said. “It’s really counterproductive to blast the other side for something, because it won’t be very long before you need the other side.”

Schwartzkopf said he thinks that lesson has been learned.

“The governor’s people and the administration have matured to Legislative Hall,” he said. “He is an evolving governor. He is a smart man. He is understanding the place down there.”