Budget, infrastructure in spotlight as lawmakers near final day

DOVER — June 30. It’s a date that evokes many emotions among lawmakers and political insiders.

The last legislative day of the year is known for going until the early hours of July 1, as the General Assembly finishes some of the many key issues hanging over the heads of legislators.

This year is only the first leg of the 148th General Assembly, meaning bills not finished — and there will be many — simply can be picked up again when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Infrastructure and the budget are tops on seemingly everyone’s list as Tuesday’s final day draws near. The budget for fiscal year 2016, which begins Wednesday, must be passed Tuesday.

After months of budget hearings and deliberations, passing the bill should be a simple matter, even though it’s sure to get some “no” votes.

The trickier matters are infrastructure and the budget for fiscal year 2017.

Lawmakers have been working for six months to find an agreement that would raise millions for road and bridge projects, but they have been unable to compromise successfully. Now they are under a serious time crunch.

“You delay today, if a vote is next year, you’ve delayed it two years already. You can’t keep delaying,” Majority Leader Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, said Thursday. “Our roads are crumbling.”

Both sides agree a solution is needed — they just have not been able to agree as to what it should be.

Legislators did have the chance to use the past few days to meet, and still can continue to hammer out a deal before the General Assembly goes into session for the day Tuesday.

House Bill 140, which would raise the price of some Division of Motor Vehicles services to generate revenue for the Department of Transportation, failed on party lines in the Senate Thursday.

President pro tempore Sen. Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, said after the vote she remains hopeful.

The DMV bill can be revived Tuesday. But should the majority not gain at least one Republican — and the caucuses have stuck together thus far, meaning Democratic leadership likely has to sway the entire group rather than just one dissenter — the bill, or any other option, would be put off until 2016.

And 2016 happens to be an election year, providing an incentive for lawmakers to reject any fee- or tax-raising bills that year for fear of the people who will decide their fates come fall.

Despite the fierce criticism cast from both sides, despite the stark ideological differences, despite the limited time remaining, legislators still could come to an agreement, something both sides have acknowledged.

Because of the budget crunch, programs providing money for community roads were unfunded this year in the capital budget. The proposal was finalized Friday against some Republican opposition. Unlike the budget bill, more than just a simple majority is needed to pass the bill, meaning Republican support is crucial. That could be tougher to come by.

If the DMV bill passes, some of the expected new revenue could be used to restore cuts to infrastructure-funding programs.

The Joint Finance Committee meets Tuesday afternoon to allocate funds for grant-in-aid, which is not included in the budget bill. Grant-in-aid programs cover volunteer fire companies and senior centers, among others. They are facing a 5 percent cut, which totals $2 million.

Delaware is projected to be $149 million in the red for the next year beyond 2016, accounting for 3 percent growth in costs. Leading Democrats have advocated raising taxes now to prepare for the problem, but Republicans remain unconvinced — perhaps the biggest difference between parties.

Republicans are seeking solutions that do not involve tax increases, such as cutting some services and looking for ways to reduce waste and fraud. But Democrats counter there is little overhead in state government and slightly greater costs are better than fewer services.

Chances of any sort of consensus in that area appear remote now.

Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said Thursday that conversations about raising revenue have been halted and he does not expect there to be enough support for any type of revenue bill to pass.

Other issues, such as capital punishment and the casinos, seem likely to go unaddressed on the final day of the fiscal year.

After legislation that would repeal the death penalty failed in committee in the House last month, Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, said he may suspend the rules in an effort to get the bill onto the floor. Other issues have shifted into the spotlight in the past month, and with a full agenda Tuesday, a suspension of the rules figures to be tough to come by.

Several lawmakers also have been pushing for aid to the state’s three casinos, which are struggling. A bill that would make major changes to the revenue structure got nowhere, and though advocates have continued supporting change, there is also strong opposition to what many see as a bailout.

The chief advocate of aid, Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, said he thinks Tuesday will mark a year gone by without relief.

Several insiders have said they expect this June 30 to be a long one, stretching into the wee hours of the next morning. For the General Assembly, it’s the last chance to do anything substantive — in any field — until January.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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