Capital bond and grant-in-aid bills fail in Senate after GOP abstention

DOVER — The Senate defeated the capital bond and grant-in-aid funding measures Tuesday, with Republicans abstaining to protest what they described as a lack of transparency.

While emphasizing they support the funding in the bills, several GOP senators said they had not been able to review the bills and want to hear feedback from constituents first.

“We have time to do this and to try to shame us into doing this … is not right,” said Sen. Dave Lawson, a Marydel Republican.

The chamber did approve the operating budget, sending it to the House by a 20-1 vote. Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican who brags of having never backed the measure in his 26 years in the Senate, was the lone dissenter there.

The Senate will try again with the bond and grant-in-aid legislation Thursday, although Tuesday’s action means a tight timetable is even tighter: Lawmakers must approve a spending plan by July 1, the start of a new fiscal year. The money bills still must be approved by the House.

The two bills that failed actually got support from more than half the chamber Tuesday but still came up short of the needed supermajorities.

The unsuccessful votes left lawmakers of both parties disappointed and some even fuming.

“Every single person in this General Assembly swore an oath to make sure that we always place the public’s interest above any of our special or personal interests,” Majority Leader Nicole Poore, a New Castle Democrat, said. “Holding up the funding for our volunteer firefighters, our veterans and also our farmers is in no one’s best interest. Denying funding for our schools and our senior centers does not serve our families and our neighbors.

Nicole Poore

“Shutting down the legislative process at this exact moment that we are all asked to respond to a pandemic, a recession and nationwide protests all at once will harm every single person in this state. We absolutely cannot afford this cynical partisanship and the D.C.-style politics. Not now.”

Several Republicans said they did not receive the grant-in-aid measure until three hours before the vote, prompting Democrats to question why they had not been communicating with lawmakers on the budget-writing committees and relevant staff.

“This really is all about timing,” Sen. Anthony Delcollo, an Elsmere Republican, said of his decision to abstain.

Republicans also cited language in the grant-in-aid bill creating task forces to study racial inequity and how law enforcement interacts with minorities as needing review.

GOP requests to table the bills or at least break for a temporary recess to give legislators more time to examine them went nowhere even after it became apparent the bills might fail otherwise.

Sen. Cathy Cloutier, who represents the Talley’s Corner area, was the only Republican to back both bills, although Sen. Bonini did support the bond measure.

The end of June is typically a legislative marathon, the conclusion of a session that began in January. This year, however, with COVID-19 completely shutting down the General Assembly for three months, lawmakers faced new problems.

“We thought we had very good year ahead of us (in February) but we got a big shock in the next couple of months,” said Sen. Harris McDowell, a Wilmington Democrat and co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.

The operating budget totals $4.52 billion, while the capital bond bill comes to $708 million. The governor proposed operating and capital spending plans of $4.64 billion and $893 million, respectively, in January.

The operating budget represents a state record. The higher capital total recommended by the governor also would have been a new high.

The grant-in-aid measure, which the Joint Finance Committee completed Monday, is about $54.5 million, a very slight decrease from the current $55 million allocation.

The difference from Gov. John Carney’s recommendations stems from COVID, which caused combined revenues for this fiscal year and the next one to plummet by about $530 million from January to June. That forced lawmakers to make some cuts and reach into other accounts to balance the budget.

Due to the virus and the time crunch, legislators approved a more barebones spending plan than usual. The operating budget basically continues programs and services at the same funding level without adding expenses aside from mandatory “door openers” like school enrollment and Medicaid growth, Controller General Mike Morton explained.

Initiatives like clean water funding had to be scaled back or slashed entirely, some of the innumerable casualities of coronavirus.

Budget officials have described the spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 as a “bridge,” a straightforward plan intended to help get the state from this fiscal year to the one beginning in 2021, when the economic situation hopefully looks very different.

The bond bill includes $364 million for transportation-related items and $344 million for other needs, such as state facilities. it does not contain additional funding for new Family Court facilities in Kent and Sussex counties, although the design process shouldn’t be delayed because money has already been allocated, Sen. Dave Sokola, a Newark Democrat, said.

Dave Sokola

“We leveraged a whole of other resources that are available,” Sen. Sokola, who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement, said, touting the federal dollars and jobs that will come from the bond bill.

The grant-in-aid proposal includes language restoring pay raises for certain state employees, such as educators, state troopers and deputy attorneys general, which JFC cut earlier in the month to close the gap.

Because of COVID, the General Assembly has been meeting online for the first time. The sessions are conducted through Zoom and can be viewed live through the caucus’ Facebook pages or the chamber’s YouTube pages. The YouTube accounts can be reached at bit.ly/3c3xZ3H (Senate) and bit.ly/2LYZf8G (House), though links are also shared on the legislature’s website.

Legislative Hall has been closed since March 12, the day after Delaware’s first confirmed coronavirus case was announced.

Nominations

Lawmakers also approved a host of gubernatorial nominees to state boards, the bench and the governor’s cabinet. The Senate unanimously gave the OK for Molly Magarik to head the Department of Health and Social Services Secretary.

Ms. Magarik, who is currently the agency’s deputy secretary, will replace Kara Odom Walker. The state announced last week Dr. Walker will leave her current role this month “to fulfill a desire to pursue health care policy work at the national level” and will work in Nemours’ Washington office.

Ms. Magarik has served as the second-in-command for the state’s largest cabinet agency for the past three-and-a-half years. In that role, she has handled health care financing, budget administration and early childhood education for the department, working with other cabinet officials, lawmakers and health care leaders.

Molly Magarik

She previously worked for Gov. Carney when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives and also was executive director of the Delaware Democratic Party, among other jobs with government and nonprofits. She is a candidate for a master’s degree in health care delivery science from Dartmouth College.

While she does not have a background in medicine like Dr. Walker, Gov. Carney expressed confidence Ms. Magarik is very qualified for the position.

“Molly is somebody that I trust implicitly,” he said Tuesday. “I know her heart, I know her mind, I know her in a deep kind of way as a professional and as a person and I just think she’s uniquely suited for this very difficult job.”

Asked about if she would support another total shutdown should COVID see a resurgence, Ms. Magarik appeared to reject it.

“The approach to a second wave is to be much more targeted and to leverage our new resources around testing and targeting,” focusing on a specific populations or communities, she said.

With 11 divisions and more than 4,000 employees, DHSS makes up more than a quarter of state General Fund spending. Only the Department of Education receives a larger share.