Lawmakers seek to end session earlier, promote transparency with new plan

DOVER — Are the June 30 marathons finally at an end?

Democratic leaders announced last week they are taking steps to finish the legislative session earlier on the final day, imposing a “crossover” deadline and once again exiting at 1 a.m. on July 1 regardless of whether the General Assembly has concluded all its business.

Because the Delaware Constitution restricts lawmakers from entering into a special session after June 30 “unless the session is recalled by the Governor or the mutual call of the presiding officers of both Houses,” it’s long been tradition for the General Assembly to remain until midnight strikes and June 30 turns to July 1. At that point, legislators go into a special session, enabling them to return at any point over the next six months if need be.

The arrangement is designed to present a sticky situation that sets up a clash between the executive and legislative branches. Although such an occurrence is believed to have never happened, staying late prevents the governor from blocking lawmakers from calling a special session in the event of, say, the legislature hoping to override a gubernatorial veto sometime between June 30 and the second Tuesday of January.

Sometimes, legislators stay well past midnight. Like, “until the sun comes up” past midnight.

In 2018, for instance, the capital budget bill did not pass until 8:30 a.m. — about 18 hours after lawmakers gaveled in. That means dozens of lawmakers, aides, lobbyists and reporters drove home, many with an hourlong commute, after pulling an all-nighter — an accident waiting to happen.

“It’s dangerous,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said. “It’s not good for people leaving this building after having them be here all night long. We’ve been very, very fortunate that nobody’s had an accident on the way home.”

It’s a change legislators have tossed around for years but, for whatever reason, have resisted implementing. Last year, however, Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-New Castle, announced the Senate would depart at 1 a.m. on July 1. If legislative business was not concluded, senators would return that afternoon, he said.

While the news caught House leaders off guard, the shift was welcomed by many, prompting both chambers to agree to follow that procedure again this year. Come July 1, should the clock strike 1 a.m. and there are still bills to be passed, lawmakers will head home to get some rest, with plans to return later in the day.

But though that shift is extremely welcome to anyone who has had to sit through a June 30, perhaps the bigger adjustment is the implementation of a crossover day. Starting this year, almost all bills not released to the other chamber by June 11 risk not getting voted on.

“The bottom line is members are going to have to put their bills in earlier to get these bills through committee and get them over to the other side,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said. “So, if a bill is passed in the House after the 10th, because we’re still going to have committee hearings, if a bill’s passed, there’s no guarantee it’ll get heard in the Senate, and the same thing in this side.”

Exceptions will be made on occasion, chiefly for the budget and related “money” bills, which are not ready until the final days of June, but in general, lawmakers who drag their feet on pushing legislation risk their bills dying slow deaths.

“One of the objectives is to greatly reduce the number of bills that are worked under suspension of rules,” Sen. McBride said.
Introducing a bill and having a vote on it that same day has been a sore spot for Republicans, who are quick to note chamber rules say measures normally require several days to advance through both chambers. In particular, an attempt by Democrats in 2018 to suspend the rules and hold a vote on raising the minimum wage on June 30/July 1 when most people were sleeping sparked a fight that almost completely derailed the end of session.

While last week’s changes were announced just by Democratic leaders, Republicans and Gov. John Carney are onboard, according to Rep. Schwartzkopf. Republicans, in fact, proposed a crossover day last year.

Should everything go smoothly with the end of session this year, legislators plan to put these procedures in their official rules in 2021.