Top banker, GOP leader on budgets, jobs, Trump

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, talked last week about his two terms trying to save jobs and attract new opportunities for First State workers, as his state was wracked by corporate mergers and heavy-industry shutdowns. See our Q&A here.

This week I spoke with two leading Republicans -- CEO Mark Turner, who heads WSFS Bank, the state's largest lender, and the Delaware Business Roundtable; and Sen. Greg Lavelle, who leads the GOP minority in the General Assembly, which has a rare choice to win a slim majority in a special election this winter.

Here's what they said: TURNER: "Delaware is in a great spot. They're moving forward. And I give a ton of credit to the governor and his administration."

In the recession, "our unemployment rate doubled to 8 percent. Now we're down to 4.3 percent, which is better than the national average. Underlying that is the actual growth in jobs," which total 455,000, up from 429,000 before the recession, ahead of neighboring states.

"Everything is not rosy. We need more middle-class jobs for people who make things. As opposed to jobs for people like me, who think about things, and work with money. But still, it's a tremendous achievement. It puts us on a really solid foundation.

"What's Delaware's next big thing? Lots of little things. We've learned a lesson: you can't rely on DuPont -- or MBNA, or AstraZeneca -- forever. These big companies provided lots of jobs, tax revenues, corporate philanthropy. But then when you lose them, they are difficult to recover from.

 

"We need a growth agenda that focuses on bringing lots of small employers to the state, including lots of start ups." Turner credits the state's Democratic leadership with backing the "Delaware Competes Act," which consolidated and reduced corporate tax rates, and the "Committment to Innovation Act, which extended R&D credits when (DuPont spin-off) Chemours was thinking of moving to Pennsylvania," following earlier expatriate spin-offs Axalta and Endo Pharmaceuticals.

Delaware lost its biggest banks -- MBNA and Wilmington Trust -- but Turner says the political leadership "actively engaged" to encourage branch operations of JPMorgan Chase and the credit card operations of Citi, TD, Capital One and Barclay's to expand. "The Governor did a terrific job of making sure we had that nucleus.

"He was also willing to invest in new things. He saved the PBF refinery. He got Bloom and SevOne to locate at the STAR Campus (former Chrysler assembly plant) at the University of Delaware.

"The Fisker (electric-car plant) didn't work out," he acknwoledged (SevOne has moved its head office to Boston and laid off Delaware staff, and Bloom has only created a fraction of the promised jobs, I noted.) "But don't you see, it's the willingness to take risks that matters, knowing that, in the start-up world, no plan goes as expected."

 

Delaware's a small place; the governor "has been everywhere," Turner added. "When we were struggling he put in a small-business relief fund with participation for the local banks. He's encouraged the co-sharing spaces -- 1313 Innovation, the Mill, Coin Loft -- to bring young, Milennial talent in. He's just all over, trying to create the attitude of job generation, around new, innovative things. I give him credit for creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem. For a good attitude. For welcoming investments."

Turner noted Delaware will inaugurate a new governor (ex-U.S. Rep. and Lt. Gov. Mark Carney, the party-backed candidate Markell defeated in the 2008 primary election), new executive for New Castle County (where most Delawareans live) Matt Meyer, and new Wilmington mayor, onetime NFL player Mike Purzycki. Meyer and Purzycki defeated incumbents in September's primary. 

According to Turner, all three incoming executives are "deeply experienced, moderate Democrats, who are pro-business, and pro-jobs, working with the private sector."

Turner is glad to see his fellow Republicans taking over in Washington with "a pro-growth agenda nationally. In Delaware the Democrats control, and they have an opportunity to push a pro-growth agenda as well, after the last eight years of (national) slow growth and self-flagellation. It's 'hey, let's grow again.'

"Delaware doesn't have a lot of natural resources. We don't have 280 days of sunshine. Or oil shale. What we have, is a familiarity of people who work togehter and go to the same Little Leauges, and worship together. It helps get things done a lot quicker."

SEN. LAVELLE: "If things are going so well, why are we looking at a $300 million potential budget deficit, vs. a $4 billion budget? I mean, good for the Governor, he's been elected twice statewide, and we haven't been.  He has high approval ratings. He's been in the arena and fought hard. He has some things to be proud of and some things we could have done better. Hats off to him for all fo that.

"Governors are judged, like Presidents, a few years after they are out. The ship has been set on a course that Gov. Carney would take at least a year to divert. The sense seems to be that we should work hard to help the banking sector -- for JPMorgan -- and for DuPont.

"So why do we have a $300 to $350 million budget deficit going into the next cycle? That speaks to a slower economy. There's no other explanation... The governor's education budget has grown progressive Democratic agenda."

What about all those new private-sector jobs? " Amazon fulfillment center jobs - we're glad to have so many of them in Middletown and New Castle -- but they are not careers.  And a lot of jobs are part-time. The Affordable Care Act has put a 20 hour limit on a lot of jobs for young adults.

"We need to pursue right-to-work in Delaware (meaning workers at unionized companies don't have to pay dues or join the labor organization). It's been a pitched battle. It doesn't mean unions can't exist. But when (highly-unionized) states like Michigan and Wisconsin have gone right-to-work, it means we are going to have to change, too. Maybe not the whole state. Maybe right-to-work zones in (old industrial districts) like Wilmington and Seaford."

Lavelle is disconcerted that his Democratic colleagues won't review spending with the same care they give to taxes. "Most have no interest about saving money. So Medicaid always gets more expensive," he told me. Reform reports gather dust.

Typical, Lavelle says, is that an estate tax reinstituted in 2009, amid the recession, "was supposed to bring in $20 million a year, it's been more like $4 million. It has chased people to move to Florida, the estate planning attonreys tell us. The Governor believes us when we show him. But the Democrats won't get rid of it."

Lavelle says Delawareans "give them a pass" about the $20 million put into an unsuccessful attempt to reopen the Wilmington GM plant as an electric-car factory. "It was a lesson. The federal goverment said, 'You put in $20 million, we'll put in $300 million.'

"Worse than losing the $20 million was the fact all that land got tied up for six years and no private capital could come in with the feds and the Fisker intellectual-property people controlling it. We were taken advantage of."

He's less tolerant about the Bloom Energy scheme, which has given more than $100 million in ratepayer payments to a California company that has not produced hundreds of promised jobs: "We were sold a bill of goods. We could have used that money for highways."

 

Lavelle has never been closer to power: With the election of State Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, D-Newark South, as Lieutenant Governor, a special election favoring his party could turn the Senate Republican for the first time since the 1970s: "We are one seat away from a majority."