Issues remain as legislative session hits final stretch

DOVER — Five legislative days remain, and some leaders in the General Assembly are getting nervous.

Lawmakers are dealing with infrastructure, as well as budgets for fiscal years 2016 and 2017, and with this fiscal year ending in less than two weeks, there’s limited time to take action.

Strong differences of opinion exist on both sides, and lawmakers have struggled to find common ground. Verbal deals have allegedly been yanked away, and now, if legislators do not reach any agreements, existing issues will simply be pushed to January, when they will have potentially grown even larger.

Both sides have clashed with one another, at times casting blame across the aisle.

While many lawmakers hoped to have solutions by this point, a number of questions still hang over the heads of legislators.

The state is facing a gap of about $28 million in the budget that must be covered before the month ends, but lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget and do have a safety blanket.

Legislators have proposed cuts, although the simplest option would be to apply a one-time fix. The Joint Finance Committee could use settlement money received by the Attorney General’s Office, solving the problem at the risk of not addressing the root causes of the issue.

With the fiscal year ending on June 30, some legislators are looking ahead a year. For fiscal year 2017, with starts July 1, 2016, the state was facing a projected deficit of about $204 million as of last month. While new revenue projections reduced that earlier this week, a gap in excess of $100 million still remains.

Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said Wednesday lawmakers may need to look at cutting money given to volunteer fire companies, senior centers and community organizations. Grant in aid totals about $45.4 million in the current budget, and Rep. Schwartzkopf said it has previously been “untouchable” but may need to be looked at if no new revenues can be created.

He noted he would rather increase taxes than cut services.

Options to raise the franchise tax and reduce itemized deductions have also been floated. Two bills backed by some of the Democratic Party’s most liberal lawmakers that would increase taxes on the wealthy were released from committee Wednesday, although Rep. Schwartzkopf noted they may not garner the support need to become law.

While some Democrats are pushing for new fees in anticipation of a difficult 2017 budget, Republicans are strongly opposed.

Minority Leader Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, said he supports using some of the settlement money this year to cover the gap and waiting until at least January before making any big decisions.

He said lawmakers should pause for more revenue projections and look for ways to increase efficiency in state government, which would subsequently cut spending.

“The only thing that has been talked about in the vast majority of conversations is raising revenue, which equates to nothing more than taxes,” he said.

Republicans have not provided specific options for cuts, although Rep. Short said they plan to reveal some specific details later this week.

He said he is holding firm against higher taxes.

The General Assembly is also dealing with infrastructure negotiations. A bill to raise Division of Motor Vehicles fees, in turn generating about $24 million annually for road and bridge projects is on thin ice as the pages of the calendar turn.

The bill passed the House and is waiting to be heard in the Senate but Democrats are depending on minority support because they do not have the necessary three-fifths supermajority.
Wednesday, Rep. Schwartzkopf expressed doubt money for infrastructure would be made available, as negotiations with Republicans have fallen through.

Democrats agreed to make changes to the state’s prevailing wage law, but lawmakers have been unable to find a solution that is palatable to everyone.

Rep. Schwartzkopf said the caucuses originally had an agreement before Republicans backed away. Infrastructure and the budget should not be a partisan issue, he argued.
“Why in the hell does anybody in this building think that they should get something for their vote? I don’t understand that,” he said, admitting he was growing frustrated.

The leader in the Senate said Wednesday the caucuses have not reached an agreement that would allow passage of the DMV bill with minority support.

“Not yet, no,” President pro tempore Patti Blevins, D-Elsmere, said when asked if the bill would be heard on the floor.

In a morning meeting of the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement, Co-Chairman Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown, noted money normally allocated for projects in legislators’ communities could be cut entirely, as could funding for the Agriculture Lands Preservation Program.

The Department of Transportation “needs every penny” it can get, he said.

Minority Whip Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, took a similar stance as Rep. Short in regard to fiscal year 2017.

State officials have said tax increases need to be passed months before they are put into place, but Rep. Lavelle was skeptical.

Like many members of the GOP, he supports greater examination of state expenditures.

“Historically, how has this expense … acted if we pushed on this lever and that lever, what would happen to that expense going forward?” he said. “So take those top five or six or seven and go through that exercise. It’s not been done.”

At this point, infrastructure hangs by a thread, although it only needs support from one Republican to pass. With members of the General Assembly going on break soon, tax increases seem unlikely.

Months of negotiations have failed so far to produce a solution to Delaware’s infrastructure issues, and $780 million in projects could go unfunded over the next six years if new revenue is not created.

While they harbor plenty of doubts in regard to infrastructure and taxes, Democratic leaders are still holding out hope.

“The bottom line, if they came in on the 29th and said. ‘Ok, we want to help,’ ‘Come on, guys, give them a big hug, we’re all in this together,’ I mean, that’s the way it should be,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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