Busy final month for lawmakers

DOVER — For the Delaware General Assembly, June is crunch time, especially in even-numbered years.

Lawmakers reconvene today with 13 regularly scheduled days left and a host of issues on their plates.

From guns to marijuana to casinos to minimum wage, legislators have plenty of hot topics to deal with over the course of the month, and their votes will likely end up influencing the primary and general elections later this year.

Because this is the second leg of the 149th General Assembly all bills not passed by the time lawmakers leave in the early morning hours of July 1 die, adding a little extra pressure.

The success of a variety of measures can also be seen as a test of Gov. John Carney’s influence in Legislative Hal. Will he be able to use the “bully pulpit” of his office to pass gun control bills and take further steps to reform state budgeting?

Gun restrictions

It’s impossible to talk about the second leg of the 149th General Assembly without mentioning firearms. Spurred on by mass shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida, over the past 10 months, Democrats are hoping to enact a variety of bills they claim will make the public safer.

Pending at various stages of the legislative process are bills to prohibit the sale of “assault-style weapons,” prevent 18-, 19-and 20-year-olds from buying rifles, create procedures for taking guns from individuals believed to be dangerous, criminalize possession of bump stocks and ban magazines that hold more than 17 rounds.

Lawmakers will pick up gun control bills almost immediately, with the Senate set to vote today on a measure to ban bump stocks, devices that enable weapons to fire more rapidly.

The proposal previously passed both chambers in March but was amended by the Senate and sent back to the House. After a delay, in which observers and insiders speculated about whether House Democrats would try to strip the Senate amendment, the measure was approved in a modified form by representatives last month.

The amended version makes possession of bump stocks or trigger cranks a misdemeanor for a first offense and a felony for all subsequent offenses. Selling, buying or otherwise transferring such devices would also be a felony. In addition, the altered bill creates a buyback program, allocating $15,000 to compensate Delawareans who turn in bump stocks or trigger cranks at a rate of $100 per bump stock and $15 per trigger crank.

On Wednesday a Senate committee will hear testimony on the assault weapon ban, arguably the least likely gun control measure to become law. While Democrats hold a 3-2 majority on the committee the measure may not even be released to the full Senate.

The bill would prohibit the sale or transfer of 45 specific long guns and 19 handguns, as well as “copycat” weapons. A violation would be a felony.

Exemptions would be granted to law enforcement and individuals acting on behalf of the federal government, including members of the military. A gun defined in the bill as an assault weapon could still be handed down from one family member to another, provided the recipient can legally own a gun.

Generally, an individual would be prohibited from bringing an assault weapon into the state if the bill is passed. Such firearms would be restricted outside of specific locations, such as a gun owner’s home, a shooting range, a gun show or a property the owner grants permission for a gun to be transported to.

The measure is based off a 2013 Maryland bill and was announced by the governor’s office.

The Senate will likely vote at some point on a proposal that would raise the age to buy or receive a rifle from 18 to 21. The bill passed the House in March but has been stalled in the Senate for two months with Democrats working behind the scenes to ensure they can defeat several Republican amendments.

Those amendments would add several exceptions, most notably for individuals who possess a Delaware hunting license.

Although the Democratic Party holds an 11-10 edge in the Senate, its members are not of one mind in regard to gun control, and it remains to be seen if the age bill passes in its current form.

Federal law requires someone buying a handgun from a licensed dealer to be at least 21. Delaware law forbids anyone under 21 from purchasing such a gun from anyone.

Three states require an individual to be 21 to buy a long gun, according to the Giffords Law Center.

The 19-year-old who perpetrated the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, reportedly used a rifle he had legally bought.

The magazine ban is relatively early in the process, having not yet received a vote by either chamber. It will, like most of the gun bills, have to rely on Democratic support to pass.

Eight states, including Maryland, New Jersey and New York, ban magazines of a certain size. Six of those define high-capacity magazines as ones capable of holding more than 10 rounds, while the other two states use 15 rounds as the threshold.

While the assault weapons bill will grab most of the headlines, also set to be voted on in committee Wednesday is a proposal that would allow law enforcement or family members of an individual believed to be a danger to him- or herself or others to obtain an emergency order to have that person’s guns confiscated.

It’s similar to legislation passed without any votes against earlier this year, although that one dealt with individuals with mental illnesses.

Marijuana legalization

Legislation that would make Delaware the ninth state with legal marijuana has been awaiting a vote in the House for a year. But while advocates continue to meet with lawmakers and push them to support the bill, it is unlikely to pass. It may not even receive a vote on the floor before the clock runs out.

After a task force looking at issues around legalization finished meeting in March, the main sponsor of the bill promised an amendment would be forthcoming. That has yet to be filed.

Sixty-one percent of respondents in an October 2016 poll from the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication said they are in favor of legalizing marijuana.

The General Assembly is likely to vote on providing expungements to about 1,250 people who were convicted of one count of possession, use or consumption of no more than 1 ounce of marijuana between 1977 and 2015. Such an offense is now a civil fine of $100 after lawmakers decriminalized cannabis in 2015.

If the bill passes, anyone seeking an expungement could apply through the State Bureau of Identification, which would then notify the courts and law enforcement.

An expungement seals a criminal record, effectively erasing the conviction.

That measure is expected to be voted on in a Senate committee Wednesday.

Casino relief

A bipartisan bill that would offer financial relief to Delaware’s three casinos is currently sitting in a House committee.

It passed the Senate with strong support at the end of April, but its chances in the House are less certain because the House speaker strongly opposes it.

The casinos have been pushing lawmakers to provide them assistance in some form for years, claiming out-of-state competition and high taxes make it difficult for them to succeed — and in turn putting hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue at risk.

The measure would slightly lower the tax rate on slots, eliminate the table game license fee and slash the table game tax rate. It is a modified version of a bill introduced in January, with the governor’s office working with the casinos to craft a proposal that is amenable to all parties.

The bill’s failure would be a big setback to the casinos.

Death penalty

One of the forgotten issues of this legislative session is the death penalty.

A bill to reinstitute capital punishment passed the House in May 2017 but has not yet received a committee hearing in the Senate.

Chamber rules allow senators to seek to force a bill to the floor after 12 legislative days if a majority of members sign a petition, but the measure remains awaiting a public forum.

The legislation is very likely to make it out of committee, although a floor vote should be close.

Delaware has been without a death penalty since the state Supreme Court ruled part of the law is unconstitutional and struck it down in August 2016.

Gov. Carney opposes the bill but has said he “wouldn’t rule out” backing a measure that authorizes a death penalty for those who kill law enforcement officers.

The bill split the House Democratic caucus but received overwhelming support from House Republicans.

Equal Rights Amendment

Senators have just two days to recall a vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that seeks to bar any sort of discrimination based on sex. The measure passed the House with relative ease in March but was defeated in the Senate in May shortly before the three-week budget markup break.

Republicans noted the bill could have unintended consequences, such as requiring the state to fund abortions or run unisex prisons, and attempted to introduce amendments to address those concerns. Their changes were voted down on party lines, leading to every Republican but one opposing it. (A Republican cosponsor was absent, but her support still would have left the bill one vote short because constitutional amendments need a two-thirds supermajority.)

Democrats and Republicans attempted to negotiate over the break with the aim of finding common ground. Because lawmakers have only three legislative days to recall a vote, the Equal Rights Amendment will die in its current form if not approved by the Senate today or Wednesday.

Paid family leave

The General Assembly will probably pass legislation this month that would give full-time state government employees a full 12 weeks of paid leave upon the birth of a child. The measure was filed in 2017 but didn’t go anywhere because of the price tag and the state’s financial crunch.

An amendment would reduce the leave to six weeks, though it has yet to be voted on.

Four states currently offer paid family leave.

Minimum wage

Some Democrats are hoping they can find enough support to raise the state’s wage floor from $8.25 to $10.25 over three years.

However, the bill remains in committee in the Senate. A measure that would have increased the minimum age to $9.25 in two 50-cent increments failed earlier this year.

Even if the proposal passes the Senate — which becomes more likely if the casino relief bill passes the House — it will probably die in the House.

Twenty-three states have higher minimum wages than Delaware, which last approved a hike in 2014. That change went into effect in two steps, with the last one in 2015.

The official Delaware Democratic Party platform calls for a $15 per hour minimum wage.

Right to die

Legislation to allow physician-assisted suicide for individuals with terminal illnesses could be voted on, but its chances are slim after the measure was pulled from the agenda twice already this year.

The proposal would authorize a mentally competent adult with a terminal disease — defined as “an incurable and irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, produce death within six months” — to end his or her life with the aid of a doctor.

It would require a physician to confirm the individual in question is dying and is not suffering from any mental illness or condition and also would mandate the patient request the medication three times with a waiting period between requests.

Gov. Carney opposes the bill.

Criminal law

Two bills that would rewrite the state’s criminal code with the aim of making it less redundant and easier to understand are scheduled for committee hearings Wednesday.

The proposal would eliminate a variety of crimes, such as making carjacking a subset of robbery.

Delaware’s criminal code, based off the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code, was adopted in 1973 and has ballooned from 95 pages to 400 pages since then.

The judiciary supports the bills, which stem from a yearslong process initiated by the Legislature. However, the Department of Justice has raised concerns, arguing a rewrite would erase decades of case law and represent a change in attitude in regard to criminal sentencing.

Smoothing fund

A panel of state officials and others examining budgeting recently recommended significant changes to the way the state allocates and sets aside money. That task force urged lawmakers to modify the never-used Budget Reserve Account into a fund that would be filled when revenue exceeds a certain level.

That fund would then be used during downturns, which have been all too common over the past decade.

The smoothing fund would offer officials some financial certainty and prevent the budget from growing at an unsustainable rate. It has bipartisan support, although some Democrats believe it would unnecessarily tie the hands of the General Assembly.

Many of Delaware’s main revenue sources, such as abandoned property, the lottery and the corporate franchise tax, are inelastic, meaning they do not grow reliably with the economy.

As a result, the state’s finances have been up and down since the Great Recession at the end of the last decade, with revenues growing by more than 10 percent one year only to decrease the following year.

Gov. Carney has said the state “cannot continue to appropriate into a bubble, only to cut our way out in years where our revenue growth does not match spending needs.”

Because there is so little time and so many other issues left, it is uncertain whether legislation altering the Budget Reserve Account will be introduced this month.

Budget expectations

As always, the spending plan for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, remains a top priority. However, unlike many recent years — especially 2017, when lawmakers missed their budget deadline and had to return in July for the first time in 40 years — the budget process has been extremely smooth so far.

The Joint Finance Committee just about wrapped up business last week, crafting a $4.32 billion spending plan. That’s an increase of 5.2 percent in spending over the current fiscal year, although budget officials caution the total includes $49 million in one-time expenditures.

Legislators have about $61 million in uncommitted money they can still allocate. It’s likely most of that will go to the bond bill while some may be used to restore cuts to grant-in-aid funding made last year.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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