Lawmakers ease into final day of legislative session

Gov. John Carney. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — The atmosphere at Legislative Hall this week could hardly have been more different from 2017.

After the nightmare that was the end of the legislative session last year, it might have been tough to believe this year’s budget process could be so smooth.

Gov. John Carney signed the budget for the upcoming fiscal year at 5:20 p.m. Thursday, 365 days after the Joint Finance Committee, in the midst of stalled budget negotiations between Republicans and Democrats, eliminated the entire grant-in-aid budget, which provides tens of millions for nonprofits.

“We are making history in the wrong kind of way,” House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, lamented at the time.

In the end, the General Assembly did pass a budget, including grant-in-aid, but only after missing its deadline and having to return in July for the first time in 40 years. Following the start of an extraordinary session, Gov. Carney put pen to paper on the budget bill at 1:16 a.m. on July 3.

It was, to put it lightly, a rather poor way to conclude Gov. Carney’s first legislative session as Delaware’s chief executive.

“What a difference a year makes,” the governor said Thursday as lawmakers around him nodded (and probably shuddered a bit as they tried to push memories of 2017 from their minds). “Last year we were signing these budgets (in the early morning hours of) July the third. I could barely see the documents that I was signing. There weren’t any smiles, as I can recall.”

When legislators go into session today for the final regularly scheduled day, they will do so with hopes of leaving soon after the calendar flips from June 30 to July 1, rather than not until the sun is about to rise or has already risen, as has happened the past three years.

2017 was the culmination of that, with lawmakers leaving around 5 a.m. only to return the following afternoon.
It was an experience no one wants to repeat.

While Legislative Hall veterans warn against taking anything for granted, 2018 will be different from 2017. With the budget already finished and few remaining major issues hanging over legislators’ heads, the second leg of the 149th General Assembly’s June 30 might be the simplest and easiest conclusion to a legislative calendar in years.

Legislators typically gavel in later than normal on June 30 and stay past midnight, entering a special session on July 1 for procedural reasons.

There may yet be a few surprises today or Sunday, but odds are good it will be a relatively stress-free day — although it won’t be a boring one.

JFC will convene today to finish the grant-in-aid bill with a little extra money to play with. Both chambers also have to pass the capital budget bill.

Democrats may try to run a proposal that would raise the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21, but it is likely they won’t have the votes despite controlling both chambers. The bill has been stuck in the Senate for three months.

The Senate will vote on — and almost certainly pass — a measure that would give Delaware’s three casinos tax relief. The bill passed the chamber in April but sat in the House awaiting a floor debate for two months before supporters and opponents reached a compromise on a modified version Thursday.

The Senate may also vote on raising the minimum wage from $8.25 to $9.25. A previous measure that would have accomplished the same thing failed in March by one vote.

Main sponsor Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, expects the bill to be acted on, but whether it passes will depend on Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, the deciding vote on the earlier unsuccessful attempt to raise the wage floor.

Thursday, Sen. Bushweller shied away from discussing the minimum wage bill, saying he wanted to wait and see what happened to the casino legislation first. With that bill since having passed the House, Senate Democrats may be able to approve a hike in the minimum wage.

Of course, the measure would then have to go through the House, which may defeat it anyway.

June 30 is no stranger to surprise retirement announcements (see House Speaker Bob Gilligan in 2012), and it remains to be seen if any other lawmakers will join this year’s exodus. Eleven of the General Assembly’s 62 members are not seeking reelection, and rumors are swirling about whether a 12th will join them.

Only three legislators have not filed or declared their intention not to do so: Sen. Marshall, Rep. Andria Bennett, D-Dover, and Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown. Keep in mind that doesn’t mean they won’t run again — the filing deadline is not until July 10 — and someone who has filed can still change their mind (see House Speaker Bob Gilligan in 2012).

Regardless, there will be at least a few tears, as some of the longest-serving and most influential members say goodbye.

While it’s reasonable to hope for a relatively quiet day, unexpected developments practically go hand-in-hand with June 30. Whether this year will have any remains to be seen.

Stay tuned, and check and @MatthewCBittle on Twitter for updates throughout the day and night.

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