Lawmakers meet for final day of 2019 session

Gov. John Carney signs the early voting bill into law . (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — As of 10:30 p.m., the General Assembly had yet to send the capital bond bill and grant-in-aid measure to Gov. John Carney on the last regularly scheduled day of the legislative session but was on track to do so and leave by 1 a.m.

The $863 million bond bill, which provides funding for roads, bridges, state buildings and several special accounts, was approved by the Senate Thursday but had not been passed by the House as of press time. Neither chamber had discussed the grant-in-aid bill, which contains $55 million in funding for various nonprofits.

The $4.51 billion operating budget was signed Tuesday, the earliest it’s been approved by the governor since 2003.

As is typical, the Senate and House opened around 4 p.m. and spent much of the evening and night discussing legislation with plans to enter into a special session at midnight. Because Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, pledged in January to send senators home for the day at 1 a.m. regardless of whether business was finished, hopes were high for an early conclusion — welcome news for anyone who has been here the past four years, when legislators have remained in session until 5 a.m. or later.

Several hundred pro gun activists rally on the east side of Legislative Hall Sunday night. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Although the threat of a last-minute surprise still loomed, June 30 started off relatively uneventful.

That was especially good news for Gov. Carney, whose first year in 2017 was marred by the General Assembly failing to meet its budget deadline and having to return after July 1 for the first time in 40 years. Last year also saw delays, with a fight over a minimum wage increase causing all progress to stop for several hours and ultimately keeping legislators in the building until 8:30 a.m.

Sunday saw lawmakers pass a host of bills, including measures to make underage possession of alcohol a civil offense, decriminalize underage possession of marijuana and give Levy Court the authority to establish a lodging tax in Kent County, with many more still on the agenda as of press time.

The lodging tax proposal enables Levy Court to collect a tax of up to 3 percent on hotels and motels, with that revenue being directed to the DE Turf. The bill is one of several measures introduced in the final days that flew through the legislative process and are expected to be signed by the governor.

Gov. John Carney congratulates Elaine Manlove who was going to retire after 20 years as Delaware’s Commissioner of Elections. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

A separate proposal that would let Dover impose an identical tax passed the House 40-1 despite some initial opposition that caused the bill to be tabled for several hours.

“I’m asking you, in the name of decency, let’s vote one down tonight,” Rep. Rich Collins, a Millsboro Republican, said of the bill, referring to the fact the chamber had already approved the county lodging tax.

Both decriminalization proposals are now before the governor. Gov. Carney supports the alcohol measure and said he backs the concept between the marijuana bill, but he wouldn’t commit to signing it.

Gov. Carney did put his signature on several bills, including ones allowing early voting in 2022 and making it easier for adults to get their criminal records sealed.

The expungement proposal, part of a large package of legislation intended to reform the state’s criminal justice system, will establish mandatory expungements for some misdemeanors and allow most offenders to apply to have their records closed after a pardon.

“This legislation helps to create a fairer, smarter criminal justice system for all and so much more,” main sponsor Sen. Darius Brown, a Wilmington Democrat, said in a statement.

“This is a jobs bill that will create safer communities by replacing barriers to economic opportunity with access to upward mobility. And it’s an act of compassion that will remove the stigma of people’s worst mistakes and recognize the humanity of those negatively impacted by the limited restorative justice policies that have hampered economic opportunity for far too long.”

Under the early voting bill, individuals can cast a ballot in person for at least 10 days leading up to an election. Supporters touted the expansion of a “fundamental right” and spoke of the increased turnout they hope the change will spark.

Although the full General Assembly gaveled in around 4, a handful of lawmakers started earlier: The Joint Finance Committee met at 3 and spent about an hour finalizing the grant-in-aid measure. The allocation of $55 million represents an increase of $3 million, or about 5.8 percent, from the fiscal year that ended Sunday.

Included in grant-in-aid is $25.8 million for government units and senior centers (including paramedic services and reimbursements for tax-exempt properties in the three county seats), $22 million for dozens of assorted not-for-profits, $6.9 million for fire companies and $359,000 for veterans organizations.

Among the nonprofits receiving funding are two that employ high-ranking legislators. Jobs for Delaware Graduates is earmarked $1.4 million, while the Police Athletic League of Delaware is set to get $184,000.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore, a New Castle Democrat, works at the former as president, and House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat, is the executive director of the Police Athletic League.

Lawmakers working for state agencies or state-affiliated organizations is nothing new, and both women have defended their positions and dual affiliations as completely legitimate.

There was also some action outside the state capitol, as around 200 people gathered for a gun rights rally that began at 4, with some attendees planning to remain through the night in case any surprises popped up.

The event doubled as a victory lap for opponents of gun control, who managed to apply enough pressure on Democratic lawmakers to kill three Senate bills in May. The measures, which failed to make it out of committee, would have banned dozens of semi-automatic firearms classified as “assault weapons,” criminalized magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds and created a permitting process to buy a firearm.

Gov. Carney cited the defeat of those bills as the biggest disappointment for him this legislative session. But for many others, including a number of Democrats, the outcome was a major victory.

Noting the bills could still be brought to the floor in 2020, the second leg of the 150th General Assembly, Sen. Brian Pettyjohn said he urged attendees to be aware.

“Really, the theme was stay the course, stay vigilant. These are your rights to defend,” the Georgetown Republican recalled Sunday night. “Really encouraged people just to stay involved.

“It’s very easy when we’re in this kind of time period right now where the bills aren’t advancing, they probably won’t advance, for some of the interest to trail off, but we need to keep the focus on the fact there are legislators out there that do want to take these rights away.”

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