The News Journal - Lee, Markell Talk to Business Leaders

News Article

Date: Oct. 22, 2008
Location: Wilmington, DE

The News Journal - Lee, Markell Talk to Business Leaders

Gubernatorial candidates lay out plans to boost economy

Beth Miller

No new taxes, no new programs and no big corporate incentive deals like the one Delaware struck with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca in 1999 to draw the company and its high-tech jobs to the state.

That's the approach Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill Lee said he would take to "tighten the belt" of state government and cope with its money crunch. It's the same approach families take when their main wage-earner loses a job, he said.

"You spend less money, you do less things, you give up things you have come to take for granted," Lee said.

Lee and his Democratic opponent, Jack Markell, took questions Tuesday from Beverley Baxter, executive director of the Committee of 100, at the business group's monthly dinner meeting at the University & Whist Club in Wilmington.

Markell said he will focus on the things he did as a businessman and in his 10 years as state treasurer -- saving money and creating jobs. He pointed to leveraged spending that he instituted in the treasurer's office, saving taxpayers an estimated $6 million annually.

But, he said, "we're not going to shrink our way to prosperity." The state must do more to aggressively attract new business. Markell said he is glad AstraZeneca is in the state, and believes Delaware must address obstacles that keep other companies from moving here.

"We can't have a couple of counties with reputations for being closed to business," he said.

Lee agreed the state must do more to promote economic development, including allowing development in areas now designated as agricultural areas. But, he said, that doesn't mean handing over open space and parkland as was recently proposed to draw a Philadelphia-based cancer center to New Castle County.

"We can't afford the kind of deals we gave to AstraZeneca," said Lee, referring to the package that included tax incentives and land. "Thank God they're here, but we can't afford that."

Markell disagreed.

"I love the huge investment they've made in facilities, in their people and in world-class research," he said.

The state won't draw new businesses unless it upgrades its public schools, both men agreed. Lee has endorsed the Vision 2015 plan designed by a coalition of educators and business and civic leaders. Markell has endorsed most of it.

They agreed, too, that addressing the state's Transportation Trust Fund shortfall -- created when state lawmakers tapped the fund to cover operating costs of the Department of Transportation -- is a significant challenge in a state where traffic choke points have become another discouragement to new business.

"But not one business can live with this: revenues that do not grow with inflation and expenses that do," Markell said, referring to DelDOT's funding pinch. "Until we fix that, we are just pretending."

Moving operating expenses back into the general fund wouldn't be easy, both agreed. Lee said he thought incremental shifts of 10 percent a year could be workable.

Lee agreed with Baxter's opening remarks that big change is coming to Delaware's government. Markell's primary victory over Lt. Gov. John Carney Jr. "indicated there would be new leadership in the Democratic Party," Lee said. But he doesn't believe Markell will bring significant change beyond that.

"Jack is always talking about bold new plans," Lee said, "but he has not talked about bold new payment schedules. I believe his 'Blueprint for a Better Delaware' will bring the largest increase in our government in history."

Peter Brown, a Wilmington resident for two years and project manager for Pennsylvania-based Freedom Enterprise construction management, said he liked a lot of the ideas he heard, but believes Markell's plan is stronger -- and Delaware needs a strong plan to draw business. Brown said he has a client now with $50 million in cash looking for commercial property who is having trouble finding entry to Delaware.

"I think Jack has a better pulse on what is going on in the state," Brown said. "He has been out there for a while."

Mark Brindle, a Citizens Bank vice president, said both men offered good ideas and he's not sure yet who will get his vote.

"My big concern is how they will pay for any of it," he said.