Cape Gazette
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Lawmakers propose rent justification

Study shows housing association paid more to bill’s opponents
By Kara Nuzback | May 03, 2013
Photo by: Kara Nuzback Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, introduced a bill April 30 that requires landowners to justify large lot rent increases for manufactured homeowners.Shown are (l-r) Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark; Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna; Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover; Ennis; and Ed Speraw, president of Delaware Manufactured Homeowners Association.

Dover — Landowners would be required to justify lot rent increases for manufactured homeowners under a bill proposed in the Senate.  Legislators who opposed a similar bill last year received more than $1,000 each from lobbyists, a new study shows.

Senate Bill 33 would require owners of manufactured home parks to seek approval from Delaware Manufactured Home Relocation Authority if they wanted to raise rents for park tenants by more than the three-year average increase in the consumer price index.

To gain approval, landowners would have to prove the additional cost is compensatory for increases in the cost of operating, maintaining and improving the manufactured housing community.

Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, introduced the bill April 30 at Legislative Hall in Dover. “We’re not barring these property owners from raising rents,” he said.  Ennis said the bill would protect homeowners from unjustified rent hikes, which they often cannot afford.

Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, said manufactured homes offer a unique arrangement, where the landowner should provide stability and predictability to the homeowner who has invested in the property.

Another version of the bill – Senate Bill 205 – was approved in the Senate in the last General Assembly, but it failed to pass the House.

According to a new study by Common Cause Delaware, First State Manufactured Housing Association lobbied hard against the bill, and donated an average of $1,170 to its opponents in the Senate and an average of $1,160 to its opponents in the House over the past five years.

The study shows the association gave supporters of SB 205 an average of $146 in the House and $36 in the Senate.

Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, a sponsor of SB 33, said legislators who oppose rent justification should do so on the merits of the bill, not because of donor influence.  “I think it’s good for Delaware,” Baumbach said of the Common Cause study.

The report, “Top Donors in Delaware,” says First State was the top contributor of funds in the state, giving nearly $134,000 to political parties and candidates from 2007 to 2012.

The report found the correlation between ‘no’ votes on SB 205 and political donations from the manufactured housing association disturbingly high.

FSMHA Board President Robert Tunnell said the association lobbied against SB 205, but it is unfair to say they paid legislators to vote against the bill.  “We are not buying votes,” Tunnell said.  “We donate money to candidates who are open-minded,” he said.  “They support good public policy.”

Tunnell said Common Cause aggregated donations over a five-year period since 2007, and he questioned how that was reflective of a vote from last year.  He also pointed out FSMHA donated to candidates that supported SB 205.

Tunnell also questioned the validity of Common Cause’s report.  “There’s some donations I would question,” he said.  “Our association donated money to Lincoln Willis, but in the report it shows there was no donation at all.”

Former Republican Rep. Lincoln Willis did not vote on SB 205.

Common Cause also names Andrew Strine president of FSMHA.  According to Tunnell, Strine has not served as president for four years.

“Senate Bill 33 is rent control,” Tunnell said.  “We do plan to lobby against the bill.”

Common Cause Spokesman James Browning said while the report contained errors with the donation amounts for AstraZeneca and E.I. DuPont Nemours, a corrected version of the report shows FSMHA donations stayed largely the same.  “We’re working off the records we got from Department of Elections,” Browning said.  “If First State has more data they want to provide, we’d be happy to include that.”

Browning also said FSMHA was not the only entity to donate money to legislators who opposed the bill.  “If you were to look at the whole industry, those numbers would be even bigger,” he said.

Reps. Harvey Kenton, R-Milford; Dave Wilson, R-Bridgeville; and Danny Short, R-Seaford, were among the 22 legislators who opposed SB 205 in the House.  Short was given $4,300 from FSMHA over a five-year period; Wilson was given $1,800.  Kenton, who took office in 2010, was given $1,200 by FSMHA over a two-year period.

Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, supported SB 205; he was given a total of $600 between 2007 and 2012.  Rep. John Atkins, D-Millsboro, who also voted in favor of the bill, was given $0, the study shows.

Reps. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, and Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, declined to vote on the bill, citing conflicts of interest; each received more than $2,000 from the housing association from 2007-2012.  When asked if she would support SB 33, Briggs King, who took office in 2009, said she had not yet read the legislation.

Briggs King recently helped establish the Manufactured Housing Assistance Program, which allocates up to $5,000 in state funding to assist manufactured homeowners who are delinquent on lot rent or home loan payments.

Common Cause releases flawed report

AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals was named the No. 1 contributor of political donations in Delaware in Common Cause’s “Top Donors in Delaware,” released April 30.  The report said the pharmaceutical company gave nearly $700,000 to individual candidates and political parties from 2007-2012.

Common Cause released a corrected version of the report May 2, in which AstraZeneca is named the fifth largest contributor, with only $82,600 in donations from 2007-2012.

“There was a problem with the numbers with AztraZeneca,” Browning said.

He said the mistake was a spreadsheet error, and noted other contributor errors, including E.I. DuPont Nemours, which moved from No. 4 with $100,685 in contributions to No. 7 with $75,685.

Browning said the original report mistakenly included two out of state committees in the study.

Delaware Racing Association, which owns Delaware Park racetrack and casino in Wilmington, was the state's second largest donor with $126,000 in political contributions.

At an April 30 unveiling of the report, Browning said the organization found many contributors donated thousands to the state Republican and Democratic Party.  “Where is the core ideology here?” Browning asked.  “It’s clearly about access and influence.”

Delaware campaign finance laws limit contributions to $600 for each candidate each election cycle, but the state imposes no limit on the amount a donor can give to political action committees.  Common Cause states this practice allows wealthy donors to wield influence through groups that are not held accountable to constituents.

Developer Dan Anderson and his wife Margot of Rehoboth Beach gave $45,500 over five years to individual candidates and the state Republican Party, but the couple donated more than $100,000 to the Route 1 PAC, which funds conservative website delawareright.com, the study says.

Anderson could not be reached at press time.

Browning said he hopes legislators will pass lobbying reform to limit the influence of big donors.  To read “Top Donors in Delaware,” go to commoncause.org/de.

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