Delaware Senate Republicans unveil bills aimed to combat poverty (Delaware State News)

By Matt Bittle

DOVER — Senate Republicans are unveiling a large-scale initiative today designed to combat poverty in a variety of stages and overhaul current efforts in the state.

The agenda, called “A Brighter Future,” consists of 11 ideas Republicans believe are largely straightforward and bipartisan.

Those ideas include creating several new tax credits, reducing government regulations and contracting with private organizations to achieve goals.

Most of the plans, provided in a briefing Tuesday, will be introduced as legislation in the coming weeks. Many of them involve the private sector, offering incentives to entice nonprofits or companies to help the government in combating poverty.

Included in the large-scale push is a focus on value and quality over quantity. People often measure anti-poverty efforts in terms of government dollars spent and programs launched rather than the number of people helped, Senate Republicans noted.

“Certainly one of the things that government has been bad at is we throw money at problems but there’s no real accountability … for the success of those programs,” Minority Leader Sen. F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said. “And I think that a lot of these issues that we’ve talked about in this initiative will be looking at results … if a program’s not working, cut it out, and that’s where government has failed on the federal and state level.

“We just keep proliferating programs and throwing more money at them without looking at the results of what we get and I think that this will have measurable results,” he added.

Working with outside organizations and state agencies, the caucus crafted a set of what it sees as potential solutions to homelessness, hunger and unemployment in Delaware.

One of the headlines of the agenda is a measure called “pay for success.” Described by the White House as “an innovative way of partnering with philanthropic and private sector investors to create incentives for service providers to deliver better outcomes at lower cost,” pay-for-success programs require the contracted nonprofit or organization to meet specific criteria before it is paid.

The Senate Republicans intend to focus on poverty through the lens of recidivism, where a goal for a pay-for-success initiative would require the outside group to, for example, reduce recidivism by 5 percent over four years to receive payment.

Success for many of the programs will be able to be measured in terms of dollars spent versus dollars saved, Sen. Simpson said, citing corrections as an example.

The Department of Correction spent $32,967 per inmate in fiscal year 2010, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. That means a program that keeps 10 people out of jail who otherwise would have offended again would save, in theory, about $330,000.

“If we get people out of homelessness and into a home, if we get those that are chronically unemployed a good job in an industry that Delaware needs, whether it’s trucking or nursing or whatever, that’s measurable,” Sen. Simpson said.

Delaware, like most of the states near it, is above the national average in terms of financial hardship. With a poverty rate of 12.5 percent, the First State ranks 17th nationally, according to PovertyUSA, an initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The U.S. Census Bureau says Kent County and Sussex County trail New Castle County in poverty rate.

Further goals

The four tax credits proposed by Republicans would deal with scholarships, housing, apprenticeships and career-training programs.

The scholarship plan would allow a person or organization to provide a donation that would be used to allow needy students to attend a private school. The per-person max would be $25,000.

Minority Whip Sen. Gregory Lavelle, R-Sharpley, acknowledged the credit functions as a voucher, and said passing that proposal “will be a higher hurdle.”

School vouchers are opposed by the National Education Association, which argues they come at the expense of public schools. The association is the parent organization of the Delaware teachers union, which holds sway in Legislative Hall.

The housing credit is modeled after the state’s Neighborhood Assistance Act, which, according to the Delaware State Housing Authority’s website, “encourages businesses and individuals who pay Delaware state income taxes to invest in programs serving impoverished neighborhoods or serving low- and moderate-income families” by giving a credit equal to half of the monetary contribution.

The new poverty credit would have a $500,000 cap on it per year.

Credits for scholarships, apprenticeships and career training would each max out at $1 million total and operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Job training for someone who is in poverty, has been unemployed for at least six months or was recently released from prison, would be eligible for a $5,000 tax credit. Courses that prepare citizens for careers, such as the Zip Code Wilmington computer coding session, would fall under a similar banner, with companies paying for the programs able to receive up to $5,000 in credits.

The agenda also includes planned legislation that would restrict money from the federal government intended for use on anti-poverty programs being utilized in other fashions, a goal Sen. Lavelle said is “common sense.”

Additional proposals would make the Earned Income Tax Credit refundable, reduce the number of jobs that require licensing, examine workforce development programs, provide funding for students in job training courses and allow certified bakers to operate out of home kitchens.

Democratic Rep. Paul Baumbach, of Newark, already has introduced legislation to change the Earned Income Tax Credit, with support from Republicans, and members of the caucus are working with the governor’s office to eliminate or change some licensing requirements.

Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, “looks forward to reviewing the recommendations and appreciates the support for addressing the licensing issues he talked about in his State of the State,” spokesman Jonathon Dworkin said. “He remains committed to working with members of both parties on an agenda that lifts people out of poverty and improves access to the middle class, including great education and training opportunities, as well as availability of well-paying jobs for all Delawareans.”

The package presented Tuesday is similar in concept if not in practice to legislation dealing with women’s health, employment and safety issues announced last year by House Democrats.

Supporters acknowledge the programs are not traditional Republican goals but say the ideas generally should receive support from across the aisle and can better the state.

For Republicans, there’s another benefit, one that may draw some opposition from other corners: If successful, the programs would not only reduce the number of people in poverty but likely would cause government to shrink.

“We’ve seen it, when we started the war on poverty with President (Lyndon) Johnson (in the mid-1960s). It was a great beginning, then we just kept tacking on more money and building that thought in peoples’ minds that it’s better to take the government’s money than to go find meaningful work.

“And it’s that point in the middle where people realize that, ‘I can do better, I need a good job,’ and government’s just not … been fulfilling their mandate to lift us all up, if you will,” Sen. Simpson said.

Republicans are not giving up other efforts to revamp state spending and affect change in the economy.

Members of the minority continue to back legislation to make Delaware a right-to-work state at least in certain municipalities, and change the laws governing what laborers on state construction projects are paid.

“I think that there’s still a good possibility that we’ll get something done if there’s some trading of horses in this race. That is something that we’ll continue to work on,” the minority leader said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com