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Legislative wrap-up 6/30/19

June 27, 2019
Early voting now law in Delaware

A bill that allows Delawareans to vote in person up to 10 days before Election Day was signed into law June 30.

Gov. John Carney said he signed legislation into law that allows registered Delaware voters to cast their ballots at polling places in order to make it easier for all Delawareans to participate in elections.

“Voting is our most fundamental right as Delawareans and Americans,” he said. “Regardless of ZIP code or party affiliation, we should make it easier for all Delawareans to cast their ballots, choose their elected officials, and participate in our democratic process.”

The bill had passed the House March 19 by a 34-6 vote with one absent. Voting no were Sussex County Republicans Rich Collins, Millsboro; Ron Gray, Selbyville; Charles Postles, Milford; and Jesse Vanderwende, Bridgeville.

Bill limits sugary drinks for kids

The Senate approved a bill 16-5 June 27 limiting the inclusion of soda and other sugary drinks in children’s meals. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for signature.

House Bill 79 would direct the Department of Health and Social Services to create and enforce standards regulating sugary drinks for children. Specifically, it would require restaurants that offer children’s meals as a combination of food and beverage, sold together at a single price, to include healthier beverages as the default.

That means that children’s meals would automatically come with water, sparkling water, milk, or a small amount of juice by default. Any other beverage, including soda, could be chosen instead by request.

“This isn’t a ban, a tax, or any other kind of hardline policy. Instead, it merely asks that restaurants don’t serve soda by default in kid’s meals,” said Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Brandywine, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.

The House passed the bill June 20 by a 28-11 vote with two absent.

Bill would start plans for universal pre-K

A bill creating a group to research and develop a plan for universal pre Kindergarten in Delaware unanimously passed the Senate June 26 and awaits action in the House.

Senate Bill 173 would establish a 13-member working group to weigh the advantages and roadblocks to creating such a system. The Consortium would include Democrats and Republicans from both chambers of the General Assembly, two cabinet-level officials from the Carney Administration, leaders from two nonprofit groups focused on early childhood education and the president of the Delaware State Education Association.

“Research clearly shows that toddlers who receive developmentally appropriate instruction and enrichment in a structured setting tend to do better in kindergarten, elementary school, and beyond, whereas those who enter school with deficits often never make up the ground they’ve lost,” said prime sponsor and Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Brandywine. “Delaware, however, ranks 38th in the nation for pre-K access with half of our 3-and 4-year-olds not receiving any pre-K instruction whatsoever,”

Delaware currently provides subsidies to help children from low-income families pay for early education and after-school care from Head Start programs and childcare providers that offer those services. The Universal Pre-K Consortium would explore ways to expand that financial support and encourage more providers and districts to offer those services.

The group would begin meeting in January 2020 and issue a final report by the end of January 2021.

SB 173, which passed the Senate by a unanimous vote, did not receive action by the full House. It may be continued when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Bill aims to give tax credit for student loans

A bill that would give tax credit for student loans was introduced June 25 and awaits action in the House Revenue and Finance Committee, which will meet in January.

House Bill 248 would create a Delaware personal income tax deduction for interest paid on student loans. The proposed deduction – not to exceed $500 – is the amount that is actually paid in interest on the debt for the tax year.

In Delaware, the average student loan debt is $34,144. Total student loan debt in this country reportedly is $1.6 trillion. It is the second-highest category of personal debt, after mortgage loans – larger than debt on automobiles, credit cards, or home equity loans. In the last decade it has grown by 157 percent.

“Over the last several weeks, hundreds of Delaware high school students have been graduating. Many of them will face an enormity of debt that comes with student loans as they take their next big step in life to attend higher education,” said Rep. Kevin Hensley, R-Townsend, a sponsor of the bill. “Our high school graduates who have successfully landed as college freshmen will be facing staggering tuition costs, as well as the dilemma of how to pay off college loans once they’ve graduated from college.”

In addition to the graduates with personal loan obligations, many parents have also shouldered part of the college costs and face a similar problem. In 2014, the average parental debt for student loans was $16,600.

Revenge porn bill introduced

A bill that would allow victims of revenge porn to sue in civil court was introduced June 19 and awaits action in Senate committee.

Revenge porn includes the unauthorized disclosure of intimate images or visual depictions of nudity or sexual acts that were consensually given to an intimate partner. The partner later disseminates those images without the consent of the person depicted.

In 2014, Delaware made the practice a criminal offense; Senate Bill 169 would allow a victim to sue in civil court for damages.

Currently, officials said, victims and their attorneys are forced to cobble together an argument under existing laws outlining copyright, invasion of privacy, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. These avenues rarely carry revenge porn litigants far in court for a variety of reasons. Copyright claims, for example, can provide some relief but are only available to victims who created the images themselves, officials said.

Senate Bill 169 would create section of law explicitly defining what level of privacy individuals can expect when it comes to intimate photos and videos, who qualifies as a victim, who can bring civil litigation, and what level of damages a prevailing plaintiff may be awarded.

The bill, also known as the Delaware Uniform Civil Remedies for Unauthorized Disclosure of Intimate Images Act, provides that any individual who “suffers harm from a person’s intentional disclosure or threatened disclosure of an intimate image” has standing to sue if they did not consent to the disclosure, the image was private, and the depicted individual was identifiable. Importantly, victims may still be able to seek damages even if they had initially consented to the creation or dissemination of an image later distributed without their consent.

Like many existing privacy laws, the bill applies only to sensitive content created or obtained under circumstances in which the individual had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The proposed Delaware law doesn’t add additional criminal penalties, but it creates civil remedies for victims such as statutory damages not to exceed $10,000 against each defendant; damages caused by the defendant's disclosures or threatened disclosures, including damages for emotional distress; punitive damages; reasonable attorney fees and costs; and injunctive relief.

The statute of limitations included in the bill would restrict plaintiffs to a four-year window after disclosure.

The bill awaits action in the Senate Transportation Committee, which will meet in January.

Reorganization of Department of Health and Social Services considered

The General Assembly passed a resolution June 27 that calls for a team of lawmakers and health policy experts to look into restructuring the Department of Health and Social Services.

Passed by a vote of 18-2 in the Senate and by a voice vote in the House, Senate Concurrent Resolution 65 directs the 17-member DHSS Reorganization Committee to seek input from Delawareans whose lives are affected by the agency. The committee would then craft recommendations for how the department can provide services to vulnerable populations, and submit its final list of recommendations by March 31, 2020.

Created in 1970, DHSS has grown over the decades to include a wide-ranging mission that now touches on everything from controlling healthcare costs and battling addiction to collecting child support payments, providing support services for the elderly and overseeing animal control throughout the state.

The roughly $1.2 billion state-funded annual cost to operate DHSS now accounts for about $3 out of every $10 the state spends each year, while the staff of the agency’s 11 divisions makes up about a quarter of all state positions unrelated to education.

Officials said most states avoid a central-agency model in favor of multiple health-related agencies with shared goals, but distinct functions. New Jersey and Rhode Island divide parallel functions between a Department of Health and a Department of Human Services. Larger states such as Pennsylvania and Maryland tend to split those functions three ways with the addition of a Department of Aging.

Last year, DHSS commissioned a strategic plan to be published in February 2020.

Bill would increase hourly wage for tipped employees

A bill introduced June 27 would increase the hourly wage rate for people who rely on tips and gratuities as part of their pay.

House Bill 252 would replace the current wage for tipped employees from $2.23 per hour with a requirement they not be paid less than 65 percent of Delaware’s minimum wage. Under the current $8.75 per hour wage, that would be $5.69. When the minimum wage increases to $9.25 per hour on Oct. 1, the tipped wage minimum wage would increase to $6.01 per hour.

The minimum wage for employees who receive tips or gratuities has not changed since 1983, when the overall state minimum wage was $3.35 per hour. Tipped wage workers at that time were paid a percentage – 66.67 percent – of the minimum wage, which was $2.23. In 1989, the General Assembly changed the hourly wage to a flat $2.23 per hour, where it has remained since.

Since 1990, when Delaware’s tipped wage was locked in at $2.23, the cost of living has nearly doubled, prices for many consumer goods have more than doubled, median housing values have grown by more than 125 percent, and in-state tuition for the University of Delaware has ballooned by more than 450 percent.

Bill defines tipped workers

A bill that clarifies what constitutes a tip and who should receive them was introduced June 27.

House Bill 251 would clarify those definitions and require more accountability from employers. It would define employees who receive gratuities as including employees who receive tips, that these employees must earn at least 50 percent of their income from tips or gratuities, and that the tips must come directly from customers, not from tip pools or other similar intervening mechanism.

Additionally, tips automatically added to credit card charges would be treated like tips or gratuity and must be paid by the employer directly to the employee at the next pay period as opposed to being held by the employer waiting to receive payment from the credit card company. The employer would not be permitted to deduct service fees from the employees’ tips or gratuities.