Democratic division may impact General Assembly this upcoming year

 

DOVER — As June 30 rolled into July 1, House Democratic leadership had a problem.

Lawmakers constitutionally are mandated to pass a balanced budget, but after hours of discussion and with the last day on the regular legislative calendar stretching into a special session, the votes weren’t there.

At the heart of the matter was frank disagreement over spending, leading to opposition from several corners.

With Republicans stonewalling over protests on certain cuts and allocations, and with different factions of the Democratic caucus holding out over similar concerns, the budget remained an area of chief concern.

Around 1 a.m., an agreement was struck. Democrats, who control the budget committee, would restore funding to state farmland preservation and Sussex County police patrols using one-time settlement money, gaining the support of members of the minority caucus. Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, who had the challenging task of creating consensus, had a deal.

With the hold-up eliminated, the budget was able to move through the House and then the Senate.

However, six House Democrats took the unusual step of voting no. Protesting charter school funding, cuts to programs that help senior citizens and a lack of new revenue sources, they argued the budget represented, in the words of Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, the “height of irresponsibility.”

Other members of the caucus disagreed with their dissension, creating some wounds in the caucus. Going forward, those fractures could continue to impact the Legislature.

Now, more than five months later, the legislative session rapidly is approaching. The second leg kicks off Jan. 12, with several issues in the forefront, not the least of which is the budget.

The state government currently is facing a projected gap of more than $100 million.

Several Democrats who protested the budget believe the past is the past, but others appear a little more hesitant.

The House Democratic caucus is a unique beast. Containing 25 lawmakers, it is the largest caucus in the General Assembly. While all 25 members share a party, they vary in their political ideology, partially owing to their respective districts. Some members are more liberal than others, and no one has the exact same priorities.

The six who voted against the budget largely come from the more liberal side of the group.

While there might be fallout in the form of heated disagreement and angry feelings, that could be well in the past.

Several members take a stance along those lines. They say disagreements are natural and to be expected, and they minimize any possible tensions created by the July 1 vote.

Talleyville Rep. Sean Matthews, one of the six Democrats who opposed the budget, does not expect any further fallout from the vote.

“Like any family, a caucus has disagreements,” he said in an email. “Those of us who voted against the budget wanted a combination of spending cuts and new revenue last year to help make the upcoming fiscal year not as difficult. I think everyone has moved on though. Speaker Schwarzkopf is our leader and I will be working with him the best I can to address the looming budget deficit.”

Fellow dissenter Rep. Sean Lynn, of Dover, shares his view. He said he has no concerns and has spoken with leadership and other House Democrats.

The caucus has met twice since session ended, with varying levels of communication between members outside of those gatherings.

Newport Rep. Kim Williams remains disappointed with the cuts for seniors but said she is not looking to the past.

“I’m optimistic that we will all come together and do what’s best for Delawareans,” said Rep. Williams, who also voted against the budget.

Rep. Paul Baumbach, whose district includes Newark, is more uncertain about the situation. Like Rep. Williams, he stands by his vote.

“Just about everyone will admit that we didn’t do a great job,” he said of the 2015 session.

Focusing more on the budget issues facing the state than potential division in the caucus, he believes the exact course of discussions to come is unknown.

“It can go well next year, it can go ugly next year,” he said.

Another lawmaker takes a different stance.

Rep. Kowalko, who has feuded publicly with House leadership in the past, expressed concern over the state’s path and the issues confronting it, some of which loomed back in spring.

“I haven’t been totally satisfied with the healing process about the budget moving forward,” the outspoken Democrat said.

Revenue remains an issue for many Democrats, at least some of whom backed bills to create new top-tier tax brackets.

House leadership and the sixth lawmaker to vote against the budget, Dover Rep. Andria Bennett, could not be reached for comment.

Democrats also are hoping to find common ground with Republicans, who held firm against possible fee increases until the very last of the session this year, when a compromise over transportation funding was struck.

Numerous issues are on the table in 2016, with spending and revenue leading the way. Cooperation both between and within parties figures to determine the path this session takes.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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