Changes are coming to the Joint Finance Committee

DOVER — The Joint Finance Committee is going to look very different next year.

Four of the committee’s 12 members are not seeking reelection, meaning JFC is guaranteed to have its most turnover in six years. With four other members up for reelection later this year, there’s a chance 2019 might even exceed 2013’s total of five new members.

Among those not running is the House co-chair, Melanie George Smith. A Bear Democrat, she has worked alongside Sen. Harris McDowell, a Wilmington Democrat, to lead the group for the past six years.

Also retiring are Sen. Brian Bushweller, a Dover Democrat, as well as Reps. J.J. Johnson, a New Castle Democrat, and Harvey Kenton, a Milford Republican. Rep. Johnson is the second longest tenured current member of JFC, having been first named to the committee after the 2008 general election. (Sen. Bruce Ennis, a Smyrna Democrat, has him beat by a year.)

Lawmakers exchanged kudos Wednesday after they just about finished the budget, giving special thanks to the four members who won’t be back next year. As Rep. George Smith let the other three retiring members take turns serving as co-chair, Rep. Kenton was, for a brief minute, the first Republican co-chair of JFC since 2008.

Rep. George Smith held back tears at one point as she praised her colleagues, and Sen. Dave Lawson, a Marydel Republican, urged his colleagues to stay in touch. There were also plenty of thanks for the fiscal wonks in the Controller General’s Office and the Office of Management and Budget, who are vital to assisting lawmakers during the budget process.

“We’ve proven that government can function, can function well, responsibly and on a bipartisan basis,” Sen. McDowell said.

Who will replace Rep. George Smith as co-chair remains to be seen. The House speaker could select one of the two non-retiring House Democrats on the committee, Reps. William Carson, who represents Smyrna, or Debra Heffernan, from the Bellefonte area. The speaker could also tap Joint Committee on Capital Improvement co-chair Rep. Quinn Johnson, a Middletown Democrat, or go with someone else.

Last time there was a change in JFC leadership was after the 2012 election, when Rep. Dennis P. Williams, a Wilmington Democrat, did not run for reelection. Rep. George Smith, his replacement, had been on the committee for two years at that point.

Sen. McDowell was named co-chair after the 2010 election saw the defeat of Sen. Nancy Cook, a Kenton Democrat who was for decades one of the most influential legislators in the General Assembly.

It’s possible the Republican Party could capture at least one of the chambers, although the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow 11-10 edge, is much more likely to fall under GOP control. Should that happen, the caucus would have an interesting choice to make about who its first JFC co-chair in 46 years (yes, it’s been that long since Republicans held the Senate) would be.

While the budget won’t be voted on for several weeks, a spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 is all but complete. JFC will meet again at some point this month to dole out funding for nonprofits.

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