2016 General Assembly finale a repeat of 2015

DOVER — The 148th General Assembly came to a close around 5 a.m. Friday, more than 12 hours after lawmakers began arriving at Legislative Hall for the end of session and at almost the exact time as in 2015.

Flanked by lawmakers, Gov. Jack Markell signed the budget bill for his eighth and final time in office. It was just after 5:15.

Although legislators were optimistic the General Assembly would be finished earlier than last year, a dispute between the Senate and House of Representatives over pace caused a significant delay, and the governor did not approve the three budget, bond and grant-in-aid bills until the sun was beginning to creep up over the horizon.

With lawmakers around him, Gov. Jack Markell looks over the budget as he prepares to sign it around 5:15 a.m. Friday. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

With lawmakers around him, Gov. Jack Markell looks over the budget as he prepares to sign it around 5:15 a.m. Friday. (Delaware State News/Matt Bittle)

The $4.08 billion budget, the first spending plan in Delaware history to surpass $4 billion, marks an increase of about $175 million from the year before.

The capital budget totals about $501 million, although more than half of that comes from the Department of Transportation’s budget. Lawmakers also allocated $45.9 million for nonprofits in the grant-in-aid bill, avoiding cuts.

The budget includes a pay raise of $750 or 1.5 percent — whichever is greater — for state employees. That raise, which tops the $500 or 1.5 percent proposed by Gov. Markell, will go into effect Oct. 1.

About 80 percent of the budget’s growth stems from increases in costs relating to Medicaid, employee health care and state worker pay.

The bond bill includes $10 million for the fund used to entice companies to settle in the state, $5.5 million for each of the state’s three public higher education institutions and $2.5 million for farmland preservation.

The capital budget easily tops last year’s allocation of $456 million.

The bond and grant-in-aid bills passed with little opposition, receiving a combined three votes against.

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, acknowledges a friend in the audience.

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, acknowledges a friend in the audience.

One of those came from Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, who objected to the $10 million given to the Strategic Fund, which provides monetary incentives to companies.

“I can no longer honestly support a measure, no matter how important the rest of it is, when it involves taking taxpayer money and forfeiting it to a corporate extortion racket,” he said. “This happens all over the country. We have no way of stopping this, but we have to stop it. We can’t afford it.”

Reps. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, and David Wilson, R-Bridgeville, also cast “no” votes due to limited funding for land-preservation initiatives.

In the Senate, Sen. Gregory Lavelle, R-Sharpley, led an unsuccessful push to remove language from grant-in-aid creating a task force to review the feasibility of a Division I wrestling program at the University of Delaware, which Sen. Lavelle called “wildly unconnected” to the rest of the bill.

The budget bill was approved by both chambers earlier in the week, and while it faced more resistance, there was not enough to seriously threaten passage.

Although legislators confronted dozens of issues on June 30 and July 1, nothing outside of the budget was more significant than Wilmington school redistricting.

Activists have pushed for redrawing school district lines so students in Wilmington are no longer being bused outside the city, an issue that has vexed many educators, Wilmington residents and public officials for more than half a century.

A measure to do just that passed the House last week but faced stiff opposition in the Senate and was voted down. However, the chambers did manage to pass legislation ordering a study on the cost of shifting Wilmington students to a different school district, a move Gov. Markell referred to as a victory.

“It could have gone in a very different direction. It could have died,” he said. “And I, sort of having been part of a lot of these conversations, I am encouraged by where it ended up. It’s not everything that we would have wanted on the timeframe we would have wanted it but we are still in the business of figuring it out, and that could have ended.”

Should the legislature take up the cause as expected in the next General Assembly, additional funding would likely need to be provided for low-income districts downstate for the measure to pass.

Members of the General Assembly also rejected proposals that would open up board of trustees’ meetings to a greater extent for University of Delaware and Delaware State University and call on Congress to ban people on the FBI’s terrorist watchlist from buying guns.

Among the dozens of bills passed were measures providing a way for children to have criminal records expunged with greater ease, raising the penalty for texting while driving and give parents greater right to know of school bullying incidents.

Lawmakers traditionally gavel in in the evening on June 30, the final day on the legislative calendar, and remain in session until the early morning hours of July 1, when they enter into a special session.

The final day, which sees dozens of bills debated, can be especially chaotic in even-numbered years, when the two-year session ends after June 30.

It can be exhilarating and draining, a marathon that includes both routine legislation and last-minute surprises.

This year, the end of session dragged on at times, with the Senate falling behind the House’s pace amidst a flood of legislation. With some members of the House growing frustrated with the Senate over its inability to quickly approve legislation, tensions were high at times. Republican and Democratic senators butted heads on bills over several occasions, and irritation could be easily detected at times.

The Senate went in at 6 p.m., with the House following an hour later, although the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement actually began meeting at noon Thursday.

Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, listens to Sen. Harris McDowell.

Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, listens to Sen. Harris McDowell.

Legislative Hall was packed early on, its halls crawling with lobbyists, state officials and other observers, although by 2 a.m. the crowd had thinned out substantially.

Cabinet secretaries mingled outside Gov. Markell’s office on the second floor of Legislative Hall, while the governor himself celebrated his last June 30 in the state’s top office by biking to Legislative Hall — a ride of some 50 miles.

It was also the final June 30 as a member of the legislature for at least one lawmaker: Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, announced several weeks ago she is retiring.

“I always hated June 30s because we go all night but this one’s kind of special, because it’s kind of one last chance to sit and to appreciate the honor that it’s been to serve for 14 years,” she said Thursday afternoon.

With four lawmakers running for higher office, Sen. Peterson could be joined by other legislators in not being on the floor next year.

In 2017, the first leg of the 149th General Assembly, lawmakers will have a chance to break a two-year streak of finishing around 5 a.m. — not that it will do a certain outgoing governor any good.

“People have asked me all night if this June 30 thing is something I will miss. Nah,” Gov. Markell said to laughter at around 5:15.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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