Delaware Senate nixes DMV fee hikes

DOVER — Senators rejected a bill Thursday that would have increased fees for a variety of Division of Motor Vehicles services with the extra revenue dedicated for infrastructure projects.

That negative vote left some top Democrats flustered and gave legislators mere days to work out a compromise before the June 30 adjournment.

After more than six months of negotiations, Democrats and Republicans have been unable to reach an agreement that would lead to bipartisan support for legislation.

House Bill 140, which would hike document, license and plate fees, was defeated 11-10, as the bill failed to reach the necessary two-thirds vote total needed for passage.

As in the Democratic-controlled House last month, the vote fell along party lines. One Democratic lawmaker did vote no, but he did so because it allows him to begin efforts to rescind the vote Tuesday should legislators create an agreement.

With Republican senators holding firm and opposing House Bill 140, this means top legislators have just one more day to prevent any sort of infrastructure-funding bill from being put off until January.

A failure would also mark two legislative years with high-profile infrastructure projects flaming out. A push from Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, to raise the state’s gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon was soundly rejected by the General Assembly in 2014.

2015 could go down as another failed effort by the Democratic majority to help alleviate what the Department of Transportation says is $780 million worth of projects that could go unfunded.

According to Speaker of the House Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, legislators have been working for four years to develop additional funding. That timeframe includes years when Democrats had the needed three-fifths supermajority in both chambers to ram a proposal through without minority support.

The DMV bill would take about $24 million more annually from motorists, which state officials would leverage by borrowing $24 million. In doing so, they could begin to chip away at the funding gap, Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

Republicans have held off on agreeing to higher fees without gaining something they feel would benefit the state in return. Top GOP lawmakers want major changes in the state’s prevailing wage law, as well as a shift of DelDOT’s operating expenses from the Transportation Trust Fund to the state’s General Fund.

Democrats have agreed to alter prevailing wage but not to the Republicans’ satisfaction.

“As this bill sits here today, all we have is promises and no solid reforms,” Minority Whip Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said.

He and his colleagues have insisted the prevailing wage changes proposed by Democrats would not save the state any notable sums of money but would continue to bring in money for unions.

Discussion Thursday took less than 20 minutes, with only four senators speaking before the votes were cast. Senate leaders said they knew entering the vote the bill would fail.

“If there are accidents because of potholes, if there are wheels that are bent … if there are alignments that need to be redone in the car because of the condition of the roads, that should be on us,” Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, said on the Senate floor.

Republicans have advocated for beginning the process of moving DelDOT’s approximately $240 million operating budget out of a fund supposed to be used solely for infrastructure projects.

Democrats initially proposed shifting $10 million, but on Wednesday, the Joint Finance Committee said it planned to allocate $5 million if House Bill 140 passed.

Speaking on the floor Thursday, JFC co-chairman Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, declared that money would not be moved if no deal was reached.

Stark ideological differences have marked the back-and-forth negotiations. Legislators have been alternately close and at an impasse for months.

Sen. Lavelle said afterward he thought the two sides had been close to an agreement after the groups met Monday night, but there was “dramatic pullback” from Democrats. He declined to specify what conditions left the sides at odds.

President Pro Tempore Sen. Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, disagreed with his characterization. The caucuses had been near a deal but failed to come to an agreement, she said, noting she still had hope a compromise would be reached before the legislature adjourns.

She was far more measured than House Democratic leaders, who had harsh words for their colleagues across the aisle.

“The Democrats are willing to take the hard vote to fix the infrastructure,” Rep. Schwartzkopf declared in a meeting with reporters Thursday evening. “We care about people getting hurt on the roads, we care about putting people back to work, we care about our infrastructure.”

Majority Leader Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, said the “Delaware way” has become Congress, with progress bogged down by partisan disagreements.

The session breaks for the year Tuesday, placing serious time pressure on legislators from both sides who have insisted they want additional infrastructure funding but have failed to find the necessary common ground.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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