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From Women's Issues to Texting While Driving, DE Lawmakers Act

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DOVER, Del. (AP) - Gov. Jack Markell has signed a series of bills regarding pay equity and other women's issues.

Lilly Ledbetter, an Alabama woman whose fight for equal pay led to Congress passing a 2009 law that bears her name, was the featured guest at Thursday's bill signing ceremony.

One new law makes it illegal for employers in Delaware to prohibit employees from talking about how much they are or their co-workers are paid.

Another reinforces the right to workplace privacy regarding reproductive health care decisions, while a third prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on their obligations as family caregivers.

Markell also signed bills ensuring that sexual violence victims on college campuses are told of their rights and legal options, and that health care providers give patients information about post-partum depression.

Texting While Driving

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Delaware lawmakers have given final approval to a bill that toughens penalties for texting or otherwise using a hand-held phone while driving.

The legislation cleared the Senate on a 14-to-7 vote Thursday after winning unanimous approval in the House two weeks ago. It now goes to Gov. Jack Markell.

The bill increases the penalty for a first offense from $50 to $100. It also increases the penalty for subsequent offenses from between $100 and $200 to between $200 and $300.

Lawmakers amended the bill to delete a provision calling for points to be assessed on a person's driver's license for second or subsequent offenses.

Supporters say many drivers, particularly young people, are ignoring the current prohibition on texting while driving and that existing penalties are not enough to discourage such behavior.

Needle Exchange Expansion

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The state House has given final approval to a bill authorizing the statewide expansion of a needle exchange program aimed at reducing the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other diseases.

The bill cleared the House on a 32-7 vote Thursday night after passing the Senate earlier this month.

Gov. Jack Markell praised lawmakers for approving the measure, which will expand a needle exchange program currently confined to the city of Wilmington, where drug addicts can exchange used needles and syringes for clean ones provided by the Division of Public Health.

Supporters of the bill contend it will help prevent the transmission of human immunodeficiency virus, hepatitis B and other blood-borne diseases, while encouraging drug addicts to seek substance abuse treatment.

The Felon Vote

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Delaware lawmakers have given final approval to a bill that allows convicted felons to vote before they have paid all fines, fees and restitution.

The legislation cleared the House on a 21-to-16 vote Thursday night and now goes to Gov. Jack Markell, who included the proposal in his State of the State address.

Officials noted that Delaware has been one of only three states requiring felons who have been released from custody to pay outstanding financial obligations before their voting rights are restored.

Three years ago, lawmakers amended the state Constitution to remove a five-year waiting period for restoration of voting rights, but the law still required all financial obligations be met before the rights were restored.

Juvenile Shackles

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The Delaware Senate has given final approval to a bill limiting the use of leg shackles on defendants in juvenile delinquency proceedings.

The measure cleared the Senate early Friday on a 13-to-8 vote and now goes to Gov. Jack Markell.

House lawmakers previously gave unanimous approval to the bill after agreeing to delay its implementation until money is appropriated for more courthouse security.

Supporters of the bill say mandatory or routine use of shackles can be demeaning and cause psychological harm to a child, and that there should be no automatic presumption that shackles are needed.

The Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services says it would need to hire more counselors to watch over defendants in court if shackling is limited, at an estimated taxpayer cost of more than $230,000 annually.

Pay Day Loans

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Delaware lawmakers have introduced legislation to cap annual interest rates on payday loans.

The legislation introduced Thursday was prompted by a recent court ruling in which a judge said it was "unconscionable" for a company to demand repayment of $1,820 for a $200 loan. 

In 2013, the General Assembly imposed limits on payday loans in 2013 but did not cap interest rates.

The legislation introduced Thursday would cap the annual interest rate on a payday loan at 100 percent. It would also prohibit the use of automated withdrawals on short-term loans for delinquency payments or accelerated default payments.

Lawmakers do not plan to work the bill this year but wanted to serve notice to the payday loan industry that reforms may be needed to discourage companies that prey on consumers.

School Redistricting Rejected

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The state Senate has refused to endorse a controversial school redistricting plan aimed at helping low-income minority students in Wilmington.

The Senate on Thursday rejected a House joint resolution formally endorsing the boundary changes, as required by state law for the plan to be implemented.

The Senate instead passed its own joint resolution noting that there is no funding for the plan this year but encouraging the commission that developed the plan to provide details for its implementation.

The Senate passed a related bill clarifying that legislative support of the redistricting plan does not constitute approval of any particular revenue or spending measure. The bill also provides $200,000 to study the costs and funding options for moving Wilmington students from the Christina School District to the Red Clay school district.

Don Rush is the News Director at Delmarva Public Media. An award-winning journalist, Don reports major local issues of the day, from sea level rise, to urban development, to the changing demographics of Delmarva.