A ‘sham’ wow moment while you were sleeping

Over 100 came to the nonprofit rally at Legislative Hall on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — We would guess that not many of you were at Legislative Hall or even tuned in to the audio feed late Thursday.

After a long silence, the rustle of desks, paper and restless lawmakers and their staff members made this editor’s laptop chirp close to 11 p.m.

Apparently, there were a few other people paying attention.

Kevin Ohlandt, a watchdog who roams Legislative Hall in the course of his unpaid, unaffiliated work for his “Exceptional Delaware” blog, caught wind of it, too. His blog entry Friday morning:

“Last night. The walkout. The fury.

“I missed it. I got in my car and drove to Legislative Hall once the Grant-In-Aid bill was introduced and went to committee around 11 p.m. last night. I arrived at Legislative Hall as the Capitol police officer, the same one I see every single time I go there, told me it was over. He also said ‘They aren’t happy.’”

Like many Delawareans, Mr. Ohlandt was trying to sort out the state spending controversies on Friday.

Democrats and Republicans have been busy blaming each other.

Mr. Ohlandt voluntarily subjected himself to the workings of the legislature for the past three years and taking notes — not as a journalist but as a citizen and advocate of school reform.

“To be honest, I don’t know who to believe anymore,” he told this editor Friday morning. “I think a lot of them are behaving like petulant children and you can quote me on that.”

His conclusion in the blog was that they were a long way from a compromise.

“Both sides are pitching their sides of the story this morning,” he wrote. “At this rate we will be lucky if we can pass a kidney stone, much less a budget.”

***

State representatives were gathering in the House chamber just before 11 p.m. Thursday after being away for hours for dinner and caucus meetings.

In a surprising move, Democrats rolled out House Bill 280. It called for personal income tax increases that would fund the accompanying Grant-in-Aid needs of nonprofits, primarily for programs for seniors, fire companies, and arts and tourism groups.

The primary sponsor was Joint Finance Committee chair Melanie George Smith, D-Bear.

The Republicans cried foul, saying there had not been a legitimate 24-hour public notice or a proper committee hearing.

Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf said the press had been told.

True, that was around 8 p.m., but reporters did not exactly know the subject of the late-night hearing.

Needing appropriations committee review, Rep. Smith offered her office, but that was met with a quick call for a larger room that would allow the public in. They found space in a nearby room.

Once inside, the rules were suspended and no comments were allowed by the public or legislators not on the committee.

Slamming and cursing ensued inside. Ten minutes later, they were back in the chamber after a 4-0 vote (only Democrats) to release the bill to the floor.

Rep. Smith outlined the legislation, citing what the potential revenue — $55 million in Fiscal Year 2018 — would do for the accompanying grant-in-aid list that she said included $5 million for fire companies, $6 million to senior centers and $13 million more than 300 nonprofits.

“The money we vote to raise tonight will save lives,” she said.

They asked for a roll call, but House Minority Leader Danny Short rose to speak.

“Thank you Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to address the assembly at 11:30 at night,” he said. “We appreciate getting this bill at 10:55 this evening, appreciate that this is a bill to fund grant-in-aid.”

He said the public did not get the 24-hour notice required, and noted the Delawareans are “asleep at this hour and will read about this in the paper tomorrow.”

(Looking at the clock, this editor thought there was a chance the Delaware State News might not get this news out. “Hold up” was the quick message sent to our copy editor Allan Ryder. Our reporter, Matt Bittle, quickly gathered the news and filed a story to make the 12:30 press start.)

Rep. Short went to blame the state’s Democratic lawmakers who “entirely control this budget process in this building and in this state. They are fully responsible.”

He scolded them for doing this in the “dark of night” and then proceeded to go out into it.

“We will not stand for this sham, we’re leaving this chamber and we’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said.

Replied Speaker Schwartzkopf, “Have a safe trip home.”

With Republicans on their way out, the Democrats voted. The roll call was 24 yes, one no and 16 absent. The bill needed a three-fourths approval and failed.

***

Much of the activity at Legislative Hall is as transparent as the bricks in the Georgian-style building.

“The biggest problem is the Delaware Way,” Mr. Ohlandt wrote in his blog post. “All these back-door negotiations. Let the fury fly in public. Let the people hear the yelling and screaming and swearing that we all know goes on behind closed doors. Let’s see the whole thing from both sides. Expose your true selves so we can get a clearer picture. Because the picture we see from the outside looking in is that of pure, unbridled chaos.”

What about that, readers? Tell us what you think about the closed-door meetings at Legislative Hall and the last-minute tug-of-war with the budget negotiations.

Send a letter to newsroom@newszap.com or post your thoughts at www.DelawareStateNews.net.

***

Given the state’s economic woes, there was no movement on the long-discussed gaming tax reductions sought by Delaware’s casinos.

It wasn’t forgotten though. When the fantasy sports legislation was debated Thursday, Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, said the operators of the fantasy leagues’ 15 percent tax on revenues should be 43.5 percent.

Or the casinos should be 15 percent, he said.

He later described his suggestion as a subtle attempt at humor, but “maybe too subtle” as he felt he had to explain what he meant.

The fantasy sports measure failed in the House.

***

Unlike many years where the media and public has endured hours of Elvis impersonations and other such frivolity, the final days of this session have a different tone. The decorum seems different this year.

Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, showed up Thursday in chainmail – the attire of the medieval expecting a fight. It didn’t play well and he was promptly asked to suit up in a more politically correct outfit.

***

In non-political news, the Schwartz Center for the Arts posted an announcement Friday about its last day of operation. So far, there has been no public announcement on the future of the Dover theater.

The Schwartz Facebook post said, “Well, it’s here … The day we have to close our doors. Thank you for all your support over the years. Good luck Dover.”

***

The weather forecast, as of Friday, looks promising for Independence Day — and Dover’s fireworks.

There was quite a bit of disappointment and grumbling last year about the weather-related cancellations – on July 4 and on Labor Day weekend when “Fourth of July 2.0” was scheduled.

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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