As minority chief in Delaware Senate, Gary Simpson’s in the thick of it
Gary Simpson, a long-serving Delaware senator from the Milford area whose district included the greater Lewes area for many years, sees a lot of angst coming in Delaware's Legislature over the next six weeks. It all has to do with Delaware's annual budget, and he will be right in the thick of it. A lifelong Republican, Simpson is the minority leader in the state Senate where Democrats hold an 11-10 margin.
Why the angst this year? Unfortunately, it's not unfamiliar ground for the state in recent years. "We have another year with a budget deficit," said Simpson. "It's not been easy since 2009. Carper had it good when he was governor."
With money rolling into the state from corporate fees and escheat funds, Carper was able to cut taxes in the state for seven of his eight years. Then, when he was succeeded by Ruth Ann Minner, the economy went sour, and she had little left to work with.
"Markell never had it easy," said Simpson. "But someday you have to pay the piper, and that's where we are now."
Simpson has long been the picture of a moderate Republican. He was an early and unapologetic supporter of Delaware's medical marijuana legislation. "I had severe reservations at first, but then I discussed it with my wife, Debbie. She told me that if she had cancer and I knew that marijuana could ease her upset stomach and help keep her appetite, she knew that I would go out and get her some. I still feel good about our law now."
But when it comes to legalizing marijuana for recreational use, Simpson reverts to his conservative roots. "There are too many unanswered questions. We've spent millions with taxes on cigarettes to get people to quit smoking. But unless studies show it is harmless from all aspects, it's too soon to recommend to our population that they smoke marijuana."
Simpson also usually hews to the Republican philosophy on budget items. "Republicans, in their minds, don't generally favor tax increases over making government more efficient. The Democrats of course are at the point of saying, 'We've cut all we can; we need more taxes.' But Republicans in Delaware feel deeply that we aren't as efficient as we can be. Maybe that feeling would change if we had a Republican governor. But we haven't had one since Mike Castle."
Simpson said finding the middle ground is what the leaders have to do. "Some think compromise is a bad word, but it's what can make government work. We have to try to get things in balance. Right now, they're not."
Gov. John Carney, said Simpson, is misleading the public when he says he's trying to close the state's $400 million budget gap with a mix of 50 percent cuts and 50 percent tax increases. "It's more like 80/20 in my mind, with 80 percent coming from more taxes. Saying you're cutting school spending by $22 million but just shifting that burden to the school districts or the counties isn't a real savings. Shifting taxes doesn't save anything.
"Yes, he would allow the districts to replace those funds with additional taxes for discretionary funding without going to referendum, but it would destroy districts' chances of passing referendums for other areas in the future."
But Simpson isn't opposed to raising taxes in some areas. He's a sponsor of legislation that would set a tax on short-term rentals such as Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) or Airbnb.
"I rent a house in Florida each winter and they have an 11 percent house rental tax. I don't even think about it. Some of my fellow Republicans say I shouldn't be supporting any new taxes, but sometimes they make sense. We have a tax on hotel and motel rooms. Why not on these other accommodations? I believe in exporting our taxes to out-of-state people. I'd rather get taxes from them than our own people. And we haven't raised taxes on ale, beer and hard liquor for 20 years. Why? We could raise another $10 million per year with a small tax increase which would amount to three pennies on a can of beer. There will be pushback from the liquor industry, but ... ."
On the other side of the ledger, Simpson thinks Delaware should get rid of the estate tax. "In 2009, it was projected that tax would raise about $20 million to $25 million per year. Last year it raised $1.4 million. It's driving wealthy people to change their residences to places like Florida without estate taxes. Those are the people who support our arts and nonprofits and give us their income taxes. But you know the attitude I get sometimes from the other side of the aisle? 'Let them walk.' Being in the minority can be a frustrating position."
Still, he said, it's leadership's obligation to find a solution. "And because of the supermajority of votes needed to pass the budget, the Democrats can't do it without us. We have a very cohesive caucus."
Dennis Forney is publisher of the Cape Gazette.