Much unsettled in General Assembly’s final night of session

DOVER — As of 11 p.m. Tuesday, the General Assembly had not yet resolved the most important issues facing it on the final day of the session this year.

Going into the day, lawmakers had to pass the budget bill, the bond bill and the grant-in-aid bill.

Technically, only the budget bill is constitutionally required, but the other two support capital projects and nonprofit organizations in the state, making them critical to the operations of the state.

At the same time, top legislators were also working to negotiate an infrastructure deal to bring in millions for road and bridge projects.

Political insiders had said they expected the final day to stretch well into the early hours of Wednesday morning. As of 11 p.m. Tuesday, the Legislature was well on its way to a very late night.

Lobbyists, activists and others potentially affected by legislation, such as police officers and tradesmen, lined the halls of the state capitol. Two separate rallies held in the afternoon urged lawmakers to make tough decisions.

Legislative Hall was packed, and with so much up in the air, many were just waiting for the dominoes to fall.

The budget, needing just a simple majority to pass, was expected to make it to the governor easily enough, but an infrastructure-related bill and the capital project allocation have been much more contentious subjects.

After gaveling in the evening, lawmakers spent hours going through their agenda, suspending the rules to allow bills to bypass the normal legislative process. But while the General Assembly covered a wide breadth of legislation ranging from sexual misconduct to charter school audits, and members took several breaks to meet in private, the most critical issues had not yet been touched as evening rolled into night.

Negotiations between members of the General Assembly had not yet resulted in a compromise, and members of both parties were threatening to hold up the capital budget.

The $374 million bond bill was likely to face stiff opposition. Unlike nearly all other forms of legislation, the proposal needs three-fourths support to pass, making it problematic for the majority Democratic Party.

Several Republicans particularly took offense to the bond committee not funding the Agriculture Lands Preservation Program and the Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund. The GOP caucuses are in favor of using $36 million in settlement funds, which JFC has opted to set aside for next year, to cover some expenses this year.

“We could be using a portion of those funds to fix some of the shortsightedness of this bill and still carry some cash into the next fiscal year,” Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, said in a statement. “This is an engineered crisis that need not happen.”

A Democratic lawmaker was also threatening to oppose the bond bill, against the wishes of his party.

Angered over a provision allowing charter schools to keep leftover funds for student busing, Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, said he planned to try to have that language removed.

If the bond bill did not garner the necessary 75 percent support in both chambers, legislators would have to go back to the drawing board. With the bond bill providing needed funding for construction, the General Assembly would likely reconvene soon to try to pass it, possibly with changes.

The legislature goes until July 1 to allow it to meet again before January without having to require the governor to call for a special session.

In another sign of the troubles the General Assembly has faced this session, legislators had still not agreed upon an infrastructure compromise by 11 p.m.

Six months of negotiations were set to come down to the final hours, an indication of the divide between the caucuses, as well as perhaps the desire of some lawmakers to wait until the last minute, when one side may be willing to cave.

House Bill 140 would raise 14 Division of Motor Vehicles fees and generate an estimated $24 million per year. The proposal has no Republican support, however, meaning the minority caucus can hold the bill up.

If the two sides fail to reach a compromise, the state would be unable to take on new road and bridge projects.

“We’re stagnant,” transportation Secretary Jennifer Cohan said. “We’re doing things that are in construction now, we’re matching our federal dollars and we’re doing state of good repair that we can.”

Ms. Cohan said around 5 p.m. she is still optimistic. She, along with many others, expected a long night.

If the DMV bill passes, JFC would move $5 million in DelDOT operating expenses from the Transportation Trust Fund to the General Fund per Republican demands, using money from a bank settlement to clear space in the General Fund.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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