Preservation amendment proposal fails in Dover

Associate Editor

DOVER, Del. (March 22, 2016) — The state House has rejected a proposed constitutional amendment mandating that $10 million be set aside each year for farmland preservation.
A majority of lawmakers voted for the measure March 15, but the final 20-to-17 tally fell short of the required two-thirds majority for a constitutional amendment.
All the dissenting votes came from Democrats, all but one of them from northern Delaware.
Democrats from more rural central and southern Delaware joined Republicans in voting for the measure.
Delaware Farm Bureau Executive Director Pam Bakerian said she wasn’t surprised the legislature didn’t go for a constitutional amendment but believes the Farm Bureau’s efforts to pass the bill made an impact.
“I think it really brought an awareness to the elected officials as they’re looking into [setting next year’s budget],” she said.
In 2005, the House and Senate voted unanimously to pass a law earmarking $10 million annually in realty transfer tax revenues to the state farmland preservation fund.
However, lawmakers and administration officials have been routinely raiding the fund in recent years to come up with money to balance the budget.
Chief bill sponsor Rep. Dave Wilson, a Sussex County Republican, noted that Gov. Jack Markell’s budget proposals have carved into the $10 million set-aside for the past six years in a row. He has recommended $3 million for it this year.
Constitutional amendments in Delaware must get two-thirds of the vote in each house and pass two consecutive legislative sessions.
Bob Garey, chair of the state Agricultural Lands Preservation Foundation, also publicly supported the bill last year and said the fight to secure money for the program has gotten tougher over time.
But the preservation process is good for the state and farmers, who often want to preserve their farm but also use the money to stabilize their operations.
“It’s an investment in protecting farmland,” he said in an interview last month with The Delmarva Farmer. “But it’s also a savings to the county and state because they don’t have to run infrastructure to a bunch of houses (or commercial development).”
At the time, Bakerian agreed.
“Farmland could very well start to be developed,” she said. “This is open space that is absolutely no cost to the government. This is not a park.”
(Editor’s note: The Associated Press contributed to this story.)