Lawmakers to debate guns, pot, and spending

Sen Gary Simpson speaks during panel discussion during the 16th Annual Legislative Luncheon at the Rollins Center in Dover on Thursday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Sen. Brian Bushweller speaks during panel discussion during the 16th Annual Legislative Luncheon at the Rollins Center in Dover on Thursday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — After a break of more than five weeks, lawmakers return Tuesday ready to confront issues ranging from marijuana to gun control to assisted suicide to spending.

The clock is ticking: Because this is the second leg of the 149th General Assembly, bills that aren’t passed when lawmakers leave the capitol for the final time on July 1 (or June 30, if one is optimistic) die, creating some extra urgency for certain issues.

The issue likely to assume center stage almost immediately is restricting guns.

Several measures are awaiting votes or committee hearings: A bill banning bump stocks was released from committee in January. Proposals aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and banning gun sales to those under 21 could be heard in committee Wednesday. All of those are in the House.

Also, legislation prohibiting the sale of “assault-style rifles” may be filed soon. That proposal is still in its early stages but is being pushed by Gov. John Carney, a Democrat.

“If we do nothing and next year that kid, (an 18-year-old) who’s distraught or strung out or whatever, decides to shoot up a school, he can walk right in a store and buy a gun and if we don’t do something now we’ll turn around and say why the hell didn’t you do something last year?” said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D- Rehoboth Beach, the main sponsor of the age limit bill.

The bump stocks bill, which has a few Republican co-sponsors, should be the easiest gun measure to pass. The others might have to rely solely on Democratic support.

The age limit and the assault weapon ban in particular are sure to generate attention. Both of those bills are much more straightforward than the mental illness bill, which is named after the late Beau Biden, attorney general of Delaware from 2007 to 2015.

Noting a more limited version of the Biden bill has been filed with the support of Republicans, House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, said the General Assembly should not be “inciting people to divide” with controversial gun measures.

Lawmakers could take steps to make schools safer as well in response to the Feb. 14 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people. Republicans are pushing a bill to add alarms that alert police in the event of a threat at a school. Another measure would create grants to enable schools to resolve security issues.

A bipartisan measure that would require all new schools to include intruder alarms, bulletproof glass and doors that can be locked from both sides may have momentum after failing to find success in previous years.

Meanwhile, many Delawareans are anxiously watching legislation that would allow adults to buy and use cannabis. Marijuana legalization is fiercely opposed by groups like the transportation lobbying club AAA, which is helping drive the bus on that issue. Grassroots organizations such as the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network are pushing for passage.

The path forward grew even more hazy last week when a task force looking at issues around legalization voted against releasing its report.

Gov. Carney opposes legalization, and the federal government’s anti-marijuana stance throws another wrench into the equation.

Another issue that has been up in the air for months is a bill to restore the death penalty. The proposal has bipartisan support.

The Delaware Supreme Court struck down the state’s capital punishment statute in 2016, ruling a portion of it violated the U.S. Constitution’s right to a jury trial.

The bill passed the House 24-16, with one member absent, in May but has yet to receive a Senate committee hearing. One or two senators who voted for repealing the death penalty a few years ago may have changed their minds, in large part due to the death of two law enforcement officers in less than three months last year.

Any vote on reinstatement should be very close, Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said.

Gov. Carney is opposed to capital punishment but said he “would consider a version that had a law enforcement exclusion.”

At the same time, a contingent of legislators is trying to allow assisted suicide for the terminally ill. The bill was on the House agenda Jan. 25, the final day before break, but was yanked at the last minute.

Main sponsor Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, said he is very close to getting the necessary 21 votes.

“I remain hopeful that we’ll be able to get it through the House in March and then it’s to my Senate colleagues,” he said.

Gov. Carney does not support the bill.

As always, the budget remains a top — if not the top — priority. The state’s financial picture is much rosier than last year, when lawmakers had to make cuts and raise taxes to balance the budget, but officials caution that’s not set in stone at this point.

The March 19 revenue projections should offer a clearer look at how income and expenditures are trending.

Lawmakers have proposed a variety of new spending initiatives, but others are hesitant to commit funds, warning that even if this year is good, Delaware could see a shortfall again in less than 12 months.

“The worst thing we can do is pass bills that have recurring costs,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

That brings doubt to measures that would otherwise pass, such as providing more funding for basic special-education students from kindergarten to third grade and giving state employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave.

Should the revenue picture remain positive as June 30 draws nearer, those bills could get the green light.

A task force is currently looking at the state’s long-term fiscal situation, hoping to add certainty. Delaware’s revenue is particularly volatile because more than one-third of it comes from abandoned property, the franchise tax and the lottery, which do not reliably grow with the economy.
Legislators on both sides support creating a sustainability fund, which would take in extra money in boom years and be available for use in bust years.

“I don’t think it’s radical and I don’t think it’s political,” Rep. Short said. “I think it’s common sense and good government.”

Republicans may also push for changes to prevailing wage, which governs how much laborers on state-funded construction projects are paid, but Democrats have been extremely resistant to bend on that.

The 149th General Assembly has seen a wave of retirements, with an unusual number of members announcing more than six months before even the primary election. Reps. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear; Harvey Kenton, R-Milford; and Bryon Short, D-Highland Woods; and Senate Majority Leader Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington; Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford; and Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, are all leaving the Legislature come November, while Reps. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold, and Dave Wilson, R-Bridgeville, are running for the Senate.

Several more retirement announcements are rumored to be forthcoming. When all is said and done, the House could be losing around a fifth of its current membership.

Sen. Simpson said he attributes the spate of retirements to coincidental timing. Many members of the General Assembly are of retirement age: 10 of the Senate’s 21 members are at least 70, and seven senators have been in office for at least 20 years.

“I don’t think it’s anything intentional as far as just thinking that now’s a bad time to be in government,” Sen. Simpson said. “I don’t think it’s anything like that. I think it’s just a matter of timing.”

Everyone is hopeful this year will end on a better note than last year, which saw lawmakers miss their budget deadline amidst constant partisan bickering. With the budget looking like it will be less of a hassle, Gov. Carney, now in his second year in office, could have more of a chance to make his mark.

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