2018 General Assembly finally wraps up: Stalls, political fights dominate final hours

Despite the hourslong impasse, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, said he never seriously worried lawmakers would need a day to cool off before finishing legislative business. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — New year, new promises, same old June 30.

One year after swearing they learned from the debacle that was the end of the 2017 legislative session, which saw political differences and a refusal to compromise cause the General Assembly to blow past its budget deadline and enter into an extraordinary session, lawmakers came perilously close to doing it again.

Despite initially harboring hopes of leaving shortly after the clock struck midnight and the calendar turned from June 30 to July 1, legislators did not depart the state capitol until 8:30 a.m., ending a marathon that for some began more than 18 hours before.

A Sunday early morning vote on raising the minimum wage by $1 ignited a blow-up that led to Republicans refusing to vote for the bond bill, resulting in a two-hour break during which speculation ran rampant about whether lawmakers would have to take time to cool off and, for the second year in a row, return the next day.

Sens. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, and Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, review legislation during Saturday’s final night of the 2018 General Assembly.

In the end, Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise, increasing the minimum wage to $9.25 and instituting a training wage. The chambers passed the $816 million capital spending plan around 8:30 a.m. Sunday, and lawmakers headed for the exits.

Unlike 2017, the operating budget was not just filed but was actually signed before June 30, prompting optimism about the General Assembly finishing far earlier than the prior three years.

But just like last year, everything fell apart.

As Saturday afternoon turned into Saturday evening into Saturday night, it became clear the Legislature would not finish as early as many had hoped. Despite the slower pace, largely due to preplanned ceremonies for retiring lawmakers and Bernard Brady, the beloved secretary of the Senate, few could have predicted the mess that would follow.

Proceedings were also slowed by the House holding up the bond bill for hours to ensure the Senate debated a number of proposals favored by representatives, sparking some animus between the chambers.

The Senate approved the minimum wage hike just after 7:30 p.m., about an hour after the chamber sent a casino tax relief measure to the governor. Passage of the casino bill caused Sen. Brian Bushweller, a Dover Democrat who was the deciding vote on a failed March minimum wage bill, to support the wage legislation. With his vote, it passed 11-10 on party lines.

The House picked up the minimum wage bill about eight hours later, prompting fury from Republicans, as well as a few Democrats.

Gov. John Carney talking with 4-year-old Gabriell White, of Dover, after he signed the parental leave bill.

“Here we are in a controversial situation, and it has consequences. And the consequences that we had laid out earlier tonight will be fulfilled,” House Minority Leader Danny Short, a Seaford Republican, said.

“We feel that in this situation we have no choice. The choice is that we cannot support this bill, and to make a point, we probably will not be able to support further bills where we will be engaged and our votes will actually be needed. It’s not to be taken as a threat but as a statement of fact that the citizens of this state need to be engaged.”

While Republicans said they were concerned with procedure — suspending the rules to vote on a controversial and impactful policy change when nearly everyone in the state is asleep — it’s questionable whether they would have objected so strenuously over other measures. Democrats noted members of the GOP did not argue with suspending the rules for bills such as farming hemp, although Republicans also pointed out the minimum wage increase has a broader impact.

The vote to suspend the rules narrowly succeeded, but only after two Democrats changed their votes.

A spirited debate on raising the wage floor followed, with Democrats arguing it would help lift people out of poverty while Republicans claimed it would cause prices to rise and lead to layoffs.

Mary Nash Wilson, who works in the state office of management and budget, with her 3-month-old daughter Madeline among guests who witnessed Gov. John Carney signing the parental leave bill Saturday night.

After 30 minutes of discussion, the bill passed with no room to spare: Rep. Earl Jaques, a Glasgow Democrat, saved the proposal by coming in late. No Republican voted for the measure, while Democratic Reps. Melanie George Smith, of Bear, and Quinn Johnson, of Middletown, joined the minority in voting against it. Rep. Bryon Short, a Highland Woods Democrat, abstained.

Then, as House Democrats called their counterparts’ bluff, all hell broke loose.

Rep. Short announced his caucus would not support the bond bill, which requires a three-fourth supermajority to pass, meaning a bipartisan effort was needed.

Republicans blasted the Democratic majority as throttling transparency, comparing the situation to what happened in 2017.

“We swore from one side to the other we would never do that again, and we’ve allowed that to happened,” Rep. Mike Ramone, a Pike Creek Valley Republican, said.

Democrats, in contrast, accused the GOP of halting the pivotal capital spending bill simply over increasing the minimum wage from $8.25 to $9.25.

“We just gave an extra dollar an hour to these working-class people. That’s a hundred pennies,” House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat, said. “To hold up a bond bill for giving people a dollar extra an hour, I just can’t see how that compares.”

Rep. Paul Baumbach, a Newark Democrat, tried to diffuse the situation and urged House Republicans to reconsider, but it became clear Rep. Short had had enough.

Utilizing an obscure House rule, the minority leader called for an end to debate.

A vote on the bond bill failed on party lines, prompting the House to take a break. The Senate, meanwhile, was essentially finished save for the bond bill, forcing the chamber to wait while representatives tried to ease the situation.

Rep. Harvey R. Kenton-R, 36th District.

Lawmakers and top executive branch officials spent the next two hours attempting to work out a deal, while the lobbyists, staffers, reporters and others remaining in Legislative Hall waited, with more than a few people fearing the General Assembly would need another day, just like in 2017.

The House finally returned just before 7 a.m., having at last reached an agreement.

The two chambers then passed legislation — originally proposed a few hours earlier by Rep. Ramone as an amendment to the minimum wage bill — establishing new training and youth wages of no more than 50 cents less than the minimum wage. The state’s minimum wage will increase to $8.75 on Jan. 1, 2019, and to $9.25 Oct. 1 the same year.

A few other states have a training or youth wage. Twenty-three states have higher minimum wages than Delaware’s current $8.25 level, while 14 have minimum wages that exceed $9.25.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Sen. Robert Marshall, a Wilmington Democrat who sponsored the minimum wage bill, said the increase was worth the hassle because it represents “a great victory” for tens of thousands of low-income Delawareans.

At long last, the bond bill was passed and signed into law, more than 18 hours after the House gaveled in the day before.

Despite the hourslong impasse, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, said he never seriously worried lawmakers would need a day to cool off before finishing legislative business.

He shot down questions about the final day of the 149th General Assembly being a fiasco, noting legislators successfully passed a budget several days before the end of the fiscal year.

“It reflects well in my mind because of the way we reacted after all the things, people were saying things that they were upset about and everything, and how we worked together to get this thing back together. We not only worked together here to get it together, we ended up working together with the Senate,” he said. “You saw how fast (things went) when we got the second bill.”

Asked what the difference between 2017 and 2018 was, Rep. Schwartzkopf argued the fact the General Assembly was at least able to get an operating budget passed — which he is fond of noting is the Legislature’s only constitutional requirement — means lawmakers fulfilled their duty.

One high-ranking Republican’s interpretation was not quite as charitable: Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, a Sharpley Republican, said he did fear at times Sunday lawmakers would exit the building without resolving all their business.

Members of the GOP, he said, sent a message to Democrats. Much of the dysfunction, he opined, also could be traced back to disagreements between Senate and House Democrats.

Powerful lawmakers in the two caucuses had strong differences of opinion over certain bills, such as measures to create a separate committee to award money to nonprofits, many of which ended up stalling in one chamber.

For Gov. John Carney, the weekend was the culmination of “an extremely productive legislative session.”

“It took longer than we expected but, in the end, we passed and I was pleased to sign a capital budget that will help us build schools, roads and other critical infrastructure throughout our state,” he said in a statement, pointing to successful legislation providing paid parental leave, imposing restrictions on firearms and offering more funding for high-need schools.

DOVER — New year, new promises, same old June 30.

One year after swearing they learned from the debacle that was the end of the 2017 legislative session, which saw political differences and a refusal to compromise cause the General Assembly to blow past its budget deadline and enter into an extraordinary session, lawmakers came perilously close to doing it again.

Despite initially harboring hopes of leaving shortly after the clock struck midnight and the calendar turned from June 30 to July 1, legislators did not depart the state capitol until 8:30 a.m., ending a marathon that for some began more than 18 hours before.

A Sunday early morning vote on raising the minimum wage by $1 ignited a blow-up that led to Republicans refusing to vote for the bond bill, resulting in a two-hour break during which speculation ran rampant about whether lawmakers would have to take time to cool off and, for the second year in a row, return the next day.

In the end, Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise, increasing the minimum wage to $9.25 and instituting a training wage. The chambers passed the $816 million capital spending plan around 8:30 a.m. Sunday, and lawmakers headed for the exits.

Unlike 2017, the operating budget was not just filed but was actually signed before June 30, prompting optimism about the General Assembly finishing far earlier than the prior three years.

But just like last year, everything fell apart.

As Saturday afternoon turned into Saturday evening into Saturday night, it became clear the Legislature would not finish as early as many had hoped. Despite the slower pace, largely due to preplanned ceremonies for retiring lawmakers and Bernard Brady, the beloved secretary of the Senate, few could have predicted the mess that would follow.

Proceedings were also slowed by the House holding up the bond bill for hours to ensure the Senate debated a number of proposals favored by representatives, sparking some animus between the chambers.

The Senate approved the minimum wage hike just after 7:30 p.m., about an hour after the chamber sent a casino tax relief measure to the governor. Passage of the casino bill caused Sen. Brian Bushweller, a Dover Democrat who was the deciding vote on a failed March minimum wage bill, to support the wage legislation. With his vote, it passed 11-10 on party lines.

The House picked up the minimum wage bill about eight hours later, prompting fury from Republicans, as well as a few Democrats.

“Here we are in a controversial situation, and it has consequences. And the consequences that we had laid out earlier tonight will be fulfilled,” House Minority Leader Danny Short, a Seaford Republican, said.

“We feel that in this situation we have no choice. The choice is that we cannot support this bill, and to make a point, we probably will not be able to support further bills where we will be engaged and our votes will actually be needed. It’s not to be taken as a threat but as a statement of fact that the citizens of this state need to be engaged.”

While Republicans said they were concerned with procedure — suspending the rules to vote on a controversial and impactful policy change when nearly everyone in the state is asleep — it’s questionable whether they would have objected so strenuously over other measures. Democrats noted members of the GOP did not argue with suspending the rules for bills such as farming hemp, although Republicans also pointed out the minimum wage increase has a broader impact.

The vote to suspend the rules narrowly succeeded, but only after two Democrats changed their votes.

A spirited debate on raising the wage floor followed, with Democrats arguing it would help lift people out of poverty while Republicans claimed it would cause prices to rise and lead to layoffs.

After 30 minutes of discussion, the bill passed with no room to spare: Rep. Earl Jaques, a Glasgow Democrat, saved the proposal by coming in late. No Republican voted for the measure, while Democratic Reps. Melanie George Smith, of Bear, and Quinn Johnson, of Middletown, joined the minority in voting against it. Rep. Bryon Short, a Highland Woods Democrat, abstained.

Then, as House Democrats called their counterparts’ bluff, all hell broke loose.

Rep. Short announced his caucus would not support the bond bill, which requires a three-fourth supermajority to pass, meaning a bipartisan effort was needed.

Republicans blasted the Democratic majority as throttling transparency, comparing the situation to what happened in 2017.

“We swore from one side to the other we would never do that again, and we’ve allowed that to happened,” Rep. Mike Ramone, a Pike Creek Valley Republican, said.

Democrats, in contrast, accused the GOP of halting the pivotal capital spending bill simply over increasing the minimum wage from $8.25 to $9.25.

“We just gave an extra dollar an hour to these working-class people. That’s a hundred pennies,” House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat, said. “To hold up a bond bill for giving people a dollar extra an hour, I just can’t see how that compares.”

Rep. Paul Baumbach, a Newark Democrat, tried to diffuse the situation and urged House Republicans to reconsider, but it became clear Rep. Short had had enough.

Utilizing an obscure House rule, the minority leader called for an end to debate.

A vote on the bond bill failed on party lines, prompting the House to take a break. The Senate, meanwhile, was essentially finished save for the bond bill, forcing the chamber to wait while representatives tried to ease the situation.

Lawmakers and top executive branch officials spent the next two hours attempting to work out a deal, while the lobbyists, staffers, reporters and others remaining in Legislative Hall waited, with more than a few people fearing the General Assembly would need another day, just like in 2017.

The House finally returned just before 7 a.m., having at last reached an agreement.

The two chambers then passed legislation — originally proposed a few hours earlier by Rep. Ramone as an amendment to the minimum wage bill — establishing new training and youth wages of no more than 50 cents less than the minimum wage. The state’s minimum wage will increase to $8.75 on Jan. 1, 2019, and to $9.25 Oct. 1 the same year.

A few other states have a training or youth wage. Twenty-three states have higher minimum wages than Delaware’s current $8.25 level, while 14 have minimum wages that exceed $9.25.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Sen. Robert Marshall, a Wilmington Democrat who sponsored the minimum wage bill, said the increase was worth the hassle because it represents “a great victory” for tens of thousands of low-income Delawareans.

At long last, the bond bill was passed and signed into law, more than 18 hours after the House gaveled in the day before.

Despite the hourslong impasse, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, said he never seriously worried lawmakers would need a day to cool off before finishing legislative business.

He shot down questions about the final day of the 149th General Assembly being a fiasco, noting legislators successfully passed a budget several days before the end of the fiscal year.

“It reflects well in my mind because of the way we reacted after all the things, people were saying things that they were upset about and everything, and how we worked together to get this thing back together. We not only worked together here to get it together, we ended up working together with the Senate,” he said. “You saw how fast (things went) when we got the second bill.”

Asked what the difference between 2017 and 2018 was, Rep. Schwartzkopf argued the fact the General Assembly was at least able to get an operating budget passed — which he is fond of noting is the Legislature’s only constitutional requirement — means lawmakers fulfilled their duty.

One high-ranking Republican’s interpretation was not quite as charitable: Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, a Sharpley Republican, said he did fear at times Sunday lawmakers would exit the building without resolving all their business.

Members of the GOP, he said, sent a message to Democrats. Much of the dysfunction, he opined, also could be traced back to disagreements between Senate and House Democrats.

Powerful lawmakers in the two caucuses had strong differences of opinion over certain bills, such as measures to create a separate committee to award money to nonprofits, many of which ended up stalling in one chamber.

For Gov. John Carney, the weekend was the culmination of “an extremely productive legislative session.”

“It took longer than we expected but, in the end, we passed and I was pleased to sign a capital budget that will help us build schools, roads and other critical infrastructure throughout our state,” he said in a statement, pointing to successful legislation providing paid parental leave, imposing restrictions on firearms and offering more funding for high-need schools.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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