A look back at a challenging legislative session

 

A view from the Senate balcony on the last night of the legislative session.  (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

A view from the Senate balcony on the last night of the legislative session. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

DOVER — The 2015 legislative session will be remembered for two things: money and difficulty.

Much discussion from January to June centered on money for infrastructure and the state’s general budget, while several politicians said it was an exceedingly challenging year.

Democrats and Republicans publicly butted heads on multiple occasions, and some lamented the congressional-like gridlock they feared was taking over Legislative Hall.

As it entered markup in mid-May, the General Assembly’s budget-writing committee faced an $83 million deficit due to higher health-care costs, unexpected revenue drops and rejection of a gubernatorial cost-cutting measure.

Meanwhile, lawmakers spent the entire session negotiating behind closed doors to develop legislation that would bring in additional millions for road and bridge projects.

In the end, everything went down to the wire Tuesday, resulting in one of the longest final days in decades, with the action stretching into Wednesday morning.

An infrastructure deal was not reached until Tuesday night, and the bond bill was not finished until after 2 a.m.

Gov. Jack Markell signed the budget bill just before the sun came up Wednesday. The last remaining legislators present at the state capitol exited the building after 6 a.m., having just completed an all-night marathon that capped off what political insiders referred to as one of the wildest sessions in memory.

“It was really a year about money,” President pro tempore Sen. Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, said Thursday.

Despite the oft-contentious negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in an effort to produce an infrastructure funding deal — negotiations that lasted half a year, broke down multiple times and came close on several occasions — legislators did leave Legislative Hall on a positive note — at motorists’ and taxpayer’s expense.

Reflecting on the first leg of the 148th General Assembly Wednesday morning, mere minutes after the legislature broke for the year, Gov. Markell said he believed many of the ideas he offered in his January State of the State message were accomplished.

Efforts to examine teacher pay, study state regulations and provide additional infrastructure funding were successful and will be a big part of how the 2015 session is remembered, he said.

No discussion of the January to June stretch can be held without considering the 11th-hour deal.

“I think it was a great result, and I think what I saw was people from both parties stepping up in a very significant way,” the governor said.

“Craziest” session

As recently as last weekend, just a few days before the General Assembly met for the final time, he had serious doubts whether an agreement would be reached. But lawmakers on both sides were able to compromise, leaving both legislative leaders and the governor satisfied.

All that came about despite what Gov. Markell called the “craziest” session he has been a part of in his seven years.

House Bill 140 raises 14 Division of Motor Vehicles fees, mostly those associated with late renewals, revocation of license suspensions and requests for duplicate documents. The state government will reap the benefits to the tune of approximately $24 million more, which will be used to allocate funding in the budget for bridge repairs, city road assistance and lawmaker-directed personal infrastructure accounts, officials insist.

With the clock ticking, legislators ultimately reached a compromise, Minority Whip Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said Wednesday morning. In return for supporting the DMV bill, Republicans will receive changes to the state’s prevailing wage laws and tighter control over how the Department of Transportation’s trust fund is used.

Discussions between the parties got off to a bad start, Minority Leader Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, opined Thursday, when the governor, a Democrat, proposed a reduction in the senior tax subsidy in January. That led to a firestorm of complaints from constituents because it would mean, in effect, a tax increase for older Delawareans.

The proposal was ultimately rejected by the Joint Finance Committee.

Legislators from both sides put blame on their counterparts for failing to acquiesce during negotiations. Rep. Short accused Democrats of rejecting certain subjects, such as making Delaware a right-to-work state early on but not listening to Republican reluctance to consider a gasoline tax hike or other ideas to which they were politically opposed.

“The majority has to recognize that for us Republicans to come to the table on tough issues, they have to come to the table for issues that are equally tough and hard to explain to constituents,” he said.

For their part, Democrats complained that as the negotiations continued, the Republican caucuses continued to raise the bar.

Although the session did produce an infrastructure deal, Democrats didn’t get something they wanted. Democratic leadership and rank-and-file members pushed for tax increases to help prepare for an anticipated budget hole in fiscal year 2017, which starts July 1.

Breaking ranks

Six House Democrats took the unusual step of voting against the budget, largely because no new general revenue bills were passed.

“There was no revenue increases this year. This is a terrible path for our state to take,” Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, said on the House floor Wednesday morning. “I think as a General Assembly we have failed our residents of this state. The much larger budget deficit next year is going to be near impossible to address, largely because of our failure to address it this year.”

Some of the most liberal members of the legislature did file bills to raise taxes on the state’s top earners, with Democratic leadership’s blessing, although they were introduced late and didn’t come to a vote.

Speaker of the House Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, dismissed criticisms from the members of his caucus who opposed the budget.

Speaker of the House Peter C. Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth) bangs the gavel beginning the final day of the session. He said the issues not decided this year will come up again at next year’s session.  (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Speaker of the House Peter C. Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth) bangs the gavel beginning the final day of the session. He said the issues not decided this year will come up again at next year’s session. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

“Apparently, they don’t fully understand the process,” he said, arguing the budget bill should not be held up.

Legislators pledged to make cuts to balance the budget, but ultimately few large cuts or decreases in funding were included in the final spending bill. Opposition both inside and outside Legislative Hall resulted in the JFC and the bond committee using one-time settlement money from Bank of America and Citi, related to the national mortgage crisis of a few years ago, to restore funding to Sussex County police patrols, a farm land-preservation program and lawmaker-directed transportation accounts, as well as senior centers, fire companies and other outside organizations receiving state funding.

While legislators were able to breathe a sigh of relief upon finalizing the general and capital budgets in the early morning hours on Wednesday, they’re not relaxing for long.

Fiscal year 2017 could see the state government needing to eliminate a shortfall of more than $150 million, something already sitting on the minds of top government officials. That deficit is a projection that includes 3 percent growth in costs with no increase in revenue.

Democrats had advocated for increasing some taxes, while Republicans favored waiting to see if revenue projections would improve before making those decisions.

The state government still has about $29.8 million in one-time settlement money that could be used when lawmakers start finishing up the budget next spring, but high-ranking Democrats in the General Assembly are uneasy about what they see as a looming problem.

“Even if numbers do come up, it’s still going to be huge,” Speaker Schwartzkopf said.

Republicans support making cuts in spending — some support eliminating entire state government agencies — but the speaker said he believes that is unreasonable.

He said lawmakers will meet over the course of the fall and attempt to come to an agreement.

“My biggest wish for next year is that people quit looking right in front of them and start looking three, four steps down the road,” he said. “Start playing chess and quit playing checkers.”

Despite the sometimes very public criticism from both parties, lawmakers from the two sides believe the caucuses are in a good place now. Ending the session with a deal helped them.

Marijuana

While infrastructure and the budget consumed most of the attention in the final weeks of June, the session also was notable for a few bills focused on crime and social issues.

House Bill 39 decriminalizes small amounts of marijuana, making possession of 1 ounce or less a civil fine of $100 rather than a criminal penalty. A complicated piece of legislation, it does carry a host of caveats, such as harsher penalties for those younger than 21 and clarifications on punishments for smoking in public versus in private.

It was hailed by cannabis advocates and supported by the governor, although law enforcement expressed concerns about unintended consequences.

The bill passed both chambers in June on strictly party lines and was signed into law less than an hour after finding approval in the Senate. It goes into effect on Dec. 18.

Death penalty

A bill sponsored by Rep. Sean Lynn (D-Dover) to abolish the state’s death penalty for convicted killers failed to pass. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

A bill sponsored by Rep. Sean Lynn (D-Dover) to abolish the state’s death penalty for convicted killers failed to pass. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Senate Bill 40 was more straightforward, while the debate around it was more nuanced. The bill aimed to repeal the death penalty, against the wishes of police and correctional officers.

Opponents of the bill touted capital punishment as a tool to prevent crime, while backers of the repeal claimed the death penalty is applied unequally and is not an effective deterrent.

As in the prior General Assembly, the bill passed the Senate before stalling in committee in the House.

Primary House sponsor Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, said he would work to gain support from a majority of representatives to suspend the rules, against the wishes of House leadership. Little was heard on the subject after the bill’s May hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.

Gaming stalls

Delaware’s gambling industry did not see any changes, despite a state committee issuing recommendations in January. After the state agreed to cover more of the slot costs in 2014, no relief was agreed upon this year.

A bill that would have overhauled the revenue-sharing system got nowhere. With the budget situation looking tight for the upcoming fiscal year, it would not be surprising if the General Assembly rejected a casino deal next year as well.

Dover Downs executives have said they likely would be facing serious trouble if no relief from the state’s heavy take from the revenue is provided.

A positive viewpoint

A spokesman for the governor said the session was a success from the executive branch’s point of view.

“We don’t expect the majority of the legislature to agree with us on everything and it’s wildly unrealistic to expect any governor to have all of his or her ideas approved by a separate branch of government,” Jonathon Dworkin said. “However, the governor’s top priorities, which were presented in his State of the State, all moved forward this year. Most significant was the increase in transportation funding.”

Despite push-back on some ideas, such as the senior subsidy decrease and the Smarter Balanced test, Gov. Markell’s relationship with the Legislature is strong and the state is making progress in job growth and school improvement, Mr. Dworkin insisted.

The future

Going forward, the budget figures to consume discussions. Raising taxes and cutting government spending are sure to be debated repeatedly over the course of the next year, as both parties seem likely to dig in their heels.

Some pending bills include a proposal to allow Delaware Technical Community College to levy a property tax on state residents, a push to raise the minimum wage and an act to repeal the estate tax. Speaker Schwartzkopf said he thinks the senior tax subsidy will come up again and the program could see some changes next year.

The death penalty also could be brought up again, should a majority of representatives agree to sign on to a suspension of the rules or a majority of committee members decide to back repeal.

But 2016 is an election year, meaning tax bills potentially could be more difficult to pass, although both Sen. Blevins and Speaker Schwartzkopf said they are not too worried about that prospect.

Looking back, participants may recall one thing about this year above all else.

“I’ll remember this as the session that went down to the wire,” Rep. Short said.

A look back
The 2015 legislative session of the 148th General Assembly saw a number of notable bills, ranging from social to fiscal issues. While several leading lawmakers say the money bills and financial concerns are what stands out the most, the session included legislation dealing with marijuana and capital punishment. Here are some of the most important and heavily debated proposals for the past six months:
• House Bill 140, Division of Motor Vehicles fees for infrastructure funding
• House Bill 225, budget
• Senate Bill 160, bond bill
• Senate Bill 40, death penalty
• House Bill 39, marijuana decriminalization

A look ahead
The second leg of the 148th General Assembly, in 2016, like the past one, figures to focus on the state budget. Infrastructure could be discussed but likely will remain on the sidelines while lawmakers examine taxes and spending. Here is a listing of the potentially most important and heavily debated proposals that could arise from January to June:
• State income tax
• Capital punishment
• Minimum wage
• Standardized testing
• Senior school property tax subsidy

 

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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