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Blast of the Big-time Spenders

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Colin Bonini has been nicknamed “No-nini” because he often casts the only negative vote on measures before the Senate. “Delaware doesn’t have a  revenue problem,” he says. “It has a spending problem.” Photograph by Jared CastaldiState Senator Colin Bonini is showing a visitor around Black Dog Farm, the 10-acre property in an unincorporated area of Kent County where he and his wife live in a three-story log home and stable her five horses. Even in this bucolic setting, Bonini can’t resist making a political point.

“The Magnolia post office is a stone’s throw away,” he says, “but our address is the Camden post office, which is a couple of miles in the other direction.”

He sighs. “Classic U. S. government.”

Wasteful spending, excessive taxes and other governmental deficiencies are Bonini’s mortal enemies, and he opposes them with the glee of a happy warrior waging the good, ultra-conservative fight. His vocal and detailed criticism of the state’s $3.091 billion budget for 2009, combined with an ebullient personality, have made him perhaps the most prominent among the state legislature’s Young Turks, a loosely defined group that urges budget cuts, reduced taxes and smaller government. All Republicans, they include representatives Greg Lavelle, Deborah Hudson and Gerald Hocker, Senator Joe Booth, and former senator Charlie Copeland, who has stayed active in state politics since losing the race for lieutenant governor in 2008.

Bonini is hands-down the most conservative of the group, often casting the only “no” vote on measures before the Senate, thus his nickname: No-nini.

“I believe in very limited government,” he says, “and my basic philosophy is that people will spend their money better than I ever will, no matter how well intentioned I am, and I and all my colleagues are well intentioned.

“But I am not one of these get-rid-of-government guys. From the human services perspective, the government clearly has a role. But I think, especially in Delaware, government has just grown way too large and way too expensive.”

The transplanted Californian was called “the longest shot in the state of Delaware” when he became the Senate’s youngest member in 1994 at the age of 29. He represents the 16th District, which encompasses southern Kent County and a small section of northern Sussex County.

From the start, he espoused his conservative credo, cautioning colleagues against runaway spending and a growing state bureaucracy. In June 2000 he predicted that “Delaware’s spending habits are a train wreck waiting to happen.” Sure enough, Governor Jack Markell faced a projected $800 million shortfall when he prepared his first budget last year. 

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Bonini held that the shortfall could be met by slashing state government, especially the payroll, without new taxes. Pointing out that the state’s 32,000 employees represent 46 percent of governmental expenses, he says, “The number has increased 15 percent in just the last eight years. We’ve got to find a way to shrink that number, and we’ve got to do it in a humane way. I don’t think we should lay people off. For one thing, it doesn’t save that much money because we’re self-insured, so we have to pay unemployment insurance.”

His solution: add two years to state workers’ pension time. He believed it would be a powerful incentive for them to take early retirement. While he says his colleagues “were intrigued by the idea,” they didn’t act on it.

“I think they will, though,” he says. “There is an institutional memory from the last time we did an early retirement incentive, in 1991 or ’92. It ended up being a disaster because within a year or two they basically filled all the positions that they [eliminated]. So they actually didn’t save any money. The key is it won’t work if you don’t have the discipline to not fill the vacancies.”

Bonini had other cost-cutting ideas too, which he put into a comprehensive and even entertaining Power Point presentation that he took to voters in all three counties.

First, though, the presentation focused on the burgeoning state budget, which has doubled in the last 12 years. Bonini pointed out such expenses as the $2.2 million lease on a helicopter that didn’t fly for 17 months, two golf courses and two marinas purchased for a combined $33 million, and 7,259 cell phones for state workers that cost almost $4 million.

Aside from the early retirement incentive, his other solutions to the budget dilemma are a two-year suspension of prevailing wages (which he claims make government projects 25 percent to 35 percent more expensive than they should be), consolidating school districts and their services, and a constitutional amendment that limits increases in state spending to inflation plus population growth.

His fellow Turks had already voiced support for most of these measures, especially the prevailing wage recommendation, but they credit Bonini for bringing statewide attention to them. Says Joe Booth, “The Bonini Plan drove the [budget] debate and changed it a little bit and impacted our decisions. Colin did the homework that [the rest of us] only surmised.”

“He’s been a consistent and long-term advocate for these ideas,” says Lavelle. “My sense is that he was often dismissed by his colleagues and some folks in Dover because we were drowning in money, and he’s sitting there saying stop spending. Things have certainly turned around, and he’s been out in front of this, way out in front, compared to a lot of folks.”

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Hocker is another who has railed against the state’s profligate ways throughout his eight years in the House. “You can’t continue to increase spending, doubling it over a 12-year period, and expect it not to come back and bite you,” says the Ocean View Republican. “Under [Governor Ruth Ann] Minner, we increased state workers an average of 530 per year for the eight years she was in office.”

Hocker believes that besides cutting expenses, the state must attract small businesses and help those already here to grow. “We’ve been rated 49th out of 50 states in entrepreneurship [in a study by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation], and that’s disgraceful,” he says. He applauds Markell’s choice of Alan Levin as director of economic development, but, Hocker says, “With the state’s anti-business atmosphere, that put him on crutches, and with the last tax package we passed [2009], we put him in a wheelchair. We have to change that and allow Alan to do his job.”

Not everyone is a Bonini fan. Though he likes him personally, Democratic Representative John Kowalko says, “Colin has good intentions, but I think his programs, his plans are so limited that there’s no wiggle room, and I don’t think that’s economically feasible.” He also faults Bonini for focusing too much on cutting government while failing to look for increased revenue sources, such as corporate taxes.

Bonini’s response, repeated every time he presented his Power Point: “Delaware doesn’t have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem.”

“Lots of states, like California and South Carolina, really don’t have the money,” he says. “We have the money. Even in a terrible economy, we still brought in $3 billion. This year’s general fund revenue includes about 30 percent personal income and just under 40 percent business taxes and corporate fees. Another 10 percent came from the lottery. We didn’t have the revenue-side problem that most states have, yet we still managed to get ourselves into a big problem, and that’s tremendously frustrating.”

Alan Muller, head of Green Delaware, also is a critic of Bonini, who frankly admits he is no environmentalist. “He genuinely thinks government is evil and we should have as little of it as possible,” says Muller. “I’ve gotten increasingly disappointed in him over the last several years. I don’t think his views are sound. He’s very ideological.”

Again, though, Muller finds the senator likeable. “Colin’s a pleasant guy. He’s courteous, treats people with respect, and he’s sincere in his views.”

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As Markell ended his first year in office, the Turks seemed willing to give the rookie governor a mulligan, though they were unhappy with the 2009 budget and the new taxes. Says Lavelle, “We often ask questions [of the Markell administration], and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think we get frank answers. But Jack had the perfectly legitimate—‘excuse’ isn’t the word I’m looking for—statement: ‘I just got here.’” The Sharpley representative indicates he will give Markell a few more months to get the feel of his office.

Bonini takes a similar stance. “Jack and I get along well,” he says. “He has said to me—paraphrasing here—‘Look, Colin, I agree with you a lot. Our government has grown too much in certain areas, but basically I just started and so next year we’re really gonna work on that.’ And I believe him. Of course, I’m more blunt. I say, ‘Cut the government,’ and he says, ‘We have to deliver services more efficiently.’ But basically I’m going to give Jack a year. On June 30, 2010 (the deadline for adopting the next budget), let’s see where he is.” 

That budget may be the last one Bonini will vote on for a while. He plans to run for state treasurer this year, when the term of current officeholder Velda Jones-Potter expires. Appointed by Markell in January 2009 to finish the term he left unfinished when he became governor, Jones-Potter is expected to run for the office, along with Chip Flowers, another Democrat. But the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Bonini, with his quick wit and constant smile, is a jolly giant with a natural flair for campaigning, so he should have a good shot at winning. And if he loses, he will keep his Senate seat until the end of his current term in 2012.

The Turks will certainly support his candidacy. Says Hudson, “He loves the issue of taxes and spending, so I think he would be a really good representative to have in a statewide office. He would be an excellent advocate and friend of the taxpayer.”

“I’m intrigued not by what the treasurer’s office is now but what it should become, which would be a watchdog agency, someone who would watch where tax dollars are going,” Bonini says. “Right now, nobody knows who the treasurer is.”

Then, chuckling, he adds, “That will change, by the way, if I get elected, for good or bad.”

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