Carney and Pettyjohn talk shop over coffee with constituents

Date Published: 
Jan. 20, 2017

Coastal Point • Maria Counts: A group of Sussex County librarians got an opportunity to meet with Delaware Gov. John Carney last week. Coastal Point • Maria Counts: A group of Sussex County librarians got an opportunity to meet with Delaware Gov. John Carney last week. Sussex Countians had the opportunity to spend time with incoming Delaware Gov. John Carney last week, when he joined state Sen. Brian Pettyjohn for a morning coffee talk, just days before his inauguration as Delaware’s 74th governor.

“It was a privilege to serve all of you and everyone here in Delaware as the low member of Congress,” said the state’s former U.S. Congressman. “It was a very difficult six years, but working together with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle — because, as a Democrat, I was in the minority of the House — we got a lot of work done.”

During the event, the two officials answered questions posed by those in attendance, including about the State’s budget.

“For us, it’s going to be the No. 1 priority for six months, for sure,” said Carney. “We have two problems at the moment: We have revenues that have to match with our expenditures. We have revenues that are increasing at about the growth of the economy, about 2 percent. We have certain revenues we’ve relied on that are not sustainable in the long term.”

Carney said that the State has lost gambling revenue over the years due to competition in surrounding states and noted that the revenue it receives from abandoned property has been targeted.

“Delaware has been getting a ton of that money — $500 million. Some of the other states don’t like that… Both of those revenue sources are at risk and not sustainable in the long run.”

He did note, however, that the State has made significant cuts in terms of employees.

“The number of State employees, other than school district employees, has been reduced by 800. There are 800 fewer state employees today than there were eight years ago. On the school district side, there’s 2,000 more. The reason is you’ve got a growth in student population… and healthcare costs.”

Following his inauguration, Carney said he planned to take former Gov. Jack Markell’s proposed budget and show Delawareans “what it would take to close the budget gap with no cuts, all revenue, and no revenue, all cuts — and have a dialogue about what we want to spend money on.”

“‘Look — we spend money for these state services. What do you want to spend the money on?’ And then have a dialogue and work with the General Assembly to come up with a budget that balances by June 30.”

Pettyjohn said it will be a tough gap to close, though not as tough as in previous years.

“We have to go into this process in a bipartisan way, trying to figure out what we can do to not only solve the budget gap now but shore up the state finances — our spending, our revenue — so that, year after year, we’re not in the same situation.”

Education was a big topic of discussion, as Carney had previously announced that he would be nominating Indian River School District Superintendent Susan Bunting to serve as Secretary of the Delaware Department of Education.

“I’ve watched her in the Indian River School District and what they’ve done in trying to raise the student achievement of all of their kids. If you look at the test scores in that district, all their kids are performing… They do a better job than most schools, I think, across our state.

“It’s because they understand the formula. It starts with strong leadership in the principal, everybody buying in to a set of objectives and approaches on how you’re going to raise student achievement, and giving those teachers the information and tools they need to get each and every kid where they need to be.”

Every student should be prepared so they can perform meaningfully in the workplace, said Carney. Action needs to be taken to improve Delaware schools, he said, stating that he believes Bunting can make a difference statewide.

“When you boil it all down, having the best schools is really, really important. We’ve spent too much time kind of arguing about education reform and not enough time actually doing it.”

Pettyjohn said the true test will be once the students have graduated from high school and move on to whatever vocation they choose. He noted that school testing has made it difficult for certain students to succeed.

“I think we’ve been, for far too long, hyper-focused on these test scores. ‘What do these test scores mean?’ Well, anyone who has taken a test or knows anything about statistics knows you can make it show anything you want. But, at the end of the day, where the rubber hits the road is what they’re doing once they leave our state-funded education system, and that is where I want to see that success.”

Carney: Post-Labor Day school start should be up to districts

The idea of starting school after Labor Day statewide was also brought up. Carney said he believed it would be best to leave that decision up to the individual school districts.

Pettyjohn said there was a bill last legislative session that did make it through that House that sought to mandate Delaware schools start after Labor Day.

“Maryland just implemented that through executive order,” he added. “I’m interested to see what the results of that are… For me, I know a lot of the school boards don’t like that idea, because it’s the State telling the schools what to do, but when you talk to the parents, they’re saying, ‘Oh, this is great!’”

He said there are also competing arguments related to the economic impact to area businesses.

“I believe in the local control when appropriate, but I believe there are arguments on both sides, and I’m really interested to see what’s going to happen in Maryland with that.”

Representatives from Sussex County libraries were out in full force at the coffee event, and asked the two public servants how libraries play a role in their plans for the state and their districts.

“Now you don’t so much need a book as you need connectivity to information. I think the libraries have done a tremendous job in providing that kind of space in communities, in towns that enhance the quality of life,” said Carney.

Pettyjohn said libraries have done an excellent job in providing online connectivity to people who are unable to have internet access at home — something he said he hopes to address during his term.

“Many folks down in Sussex County — especially west of 113 — don’t have access to internet at home except through maybe their cell phone or a lower-speed connection,” he said, noting that Sussex County has earmarked some money to help make broadband more accessible to rural areas.

Environmental concerns — specifically related to water quality — were also discussed, with Carney saying a balance needs to be struck.

“When you talk about ag, you talk about poultry. When you talk about poultry, you know there’s poultry manure that goes along with it. Our ability to manage that manure is our biggest challenge with respect to clean water.

“We’ve made a lot of progress — the poultry industry, the individual farmers and the ag industry in our state — doing what is called ‘best management practice’ over nutrient management. We had a little bit of a tug-of-war with the EPA over that, because here in Delaware we believe we can come up with our local solutions better than those that might be imposed from the EPA office.”

Carney and Pettyjohn both said a great deal has been done within the state to improve water quality; however, it takes time to see results from those steps.