No budget deal; Delaware legislators ordered back Sunday

UPDATE, 7 a.m. − Lawmakers failed to agree on a budget on the scheduled final night of the General Assembly. A short-term spending measure is in place to continue funding state government.
Gov. John Carney has ordered the legislature to come back to work at 1 p.m. Sunday.
“I’m deeply disappointed that the General Assembly has failed to reach an agreement to pass a balanced budget, and a responsible long-term financial plan,” he said. “The fact is we met Republican leaders more than halfway. We have pledged to support real spending reductions, and fiscal reforms that would place controls on future spending. Unfortunately, Republicans have been unwilling to compromise on their ideological demands, and have not agreed to support a sustainable plan to raise new revenue.”
More details to be posted at www.DelawareStateNews.net.

DOVER — As of midnight Friday — the last day of the legislative session — Democrats and Republicans still didn’t have a deal to balance the budget.

Lawmakers were expected to work well into the morning and a possibility the General Assembly could — for the first time ever — fail to pass a budget loomed large.

Democrats, who control both chambers and the governor’s office, had been working with Republicans for months to come to an agreement on eliminating a shortfall of nearly $400 million, but to no avail.

House Democrats surprised their colleagues on the other side of the aisle Thursday night by introducing a bill to raise income taxes and use some of that revenue to fund nonprofits.

Grants-in-aid for nonprofits, including fire companies, senior centers and veterans’ organizations, was zeroed-out Wednesday, partly to apply political pressure to Republicans and convince at least several GOP lawmakers to back tax hikes.

The Delaware Senate meets on the final day of the General Assembly at Legislative Hall on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The bill, however, was swiftly shot down by outraged Republicans who said the vote was a transparent political maneuver and walked out in protest.

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said he hoped some members of the minority would vote for the tax increase out of a desire to fund grants-in-aid.

Jeff Dennison with the Bowers Beach Fire Department sits with other firefighters in the House gallery. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Democrats remained hopeful a budget deal could be reached but they, like Republicans, were far from certain how the night would end.

While the two sides had previously reached a consensus on raising the franchise tax and making some cuts, the prevailing wage issue held up talks.

Prevailing wage determines the hourly pay for workers on construction projects funded by the state, and it has been a highly divisive subject. The wage is often set much higher than what a laborer would otherwise earn: An electrician on a state-funded construction job in Delaware earns $66.85 an hour, while the average hourly wage for an electrician nationwide is $27.24.

The wage drives the cost of projects up and Republicans say it effectively spends taxpayer dollars inefficiently. They’ve also alleged the process that sets the rates is rigged, calling it “an incestuous relationship between ruling Democrats and their political allies in the state’s labor unions.”

Democrats claim the wage helps “middle-class” families and they objected to Republicans including it as part of budget negotiations.

Spectators watch the Delaware Senate meeting on the final day of the General Assembly at Leg Hall on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Republicans previously introduced three bills that would suspend prevailing wage on different projects, but the measures have languished because of opposition from the Democratic majority.

On Thursday, Republican lawmakers released a compromise proposal they said will provide more oversight on the wage rates and make the process fairer.
Republicans claim union shops complete a survey for every step of the job, skewing the wage rates.

The plan would also alter the rates for jobs, such as bricklayers, painters and sprinkler fitters, that have been locked in since the passage of a 2015 bill.

Other news

The Joint Capital Improvement Committee finished crafting the bond bill after moving money around to fund farmland preservation with the goal of picking up necessary Republican votes.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Jackson said he would try to find $3 million, the amount given to the program in the current year.

Sen. Ernie Lopez (R) places hand on heart during the Pledge of Allegiance during final day of the Delaware Senate. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The hearing grew tense at one point when prevailing wage came up, with Rep. Michael Mulrooney, D-Wilmington Manor, lambasting Republicans.

“Christ, every freakin’ year the same stuff,” he complained. “Keep moving the goals.”

The bond bill, however, is irrelevant if no budget can be passed.

Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, said she was “short probably a handful of votes, maybe even less” toward passing in the House a bill that would legalize marijuana.

In an attempt to assuage concerns she announced she was introducing legislation to create a task force to study marijuana legalization.

It had yet to be voted on as of 10:30 p.m.

Gov. John Carney has expressed opposition to marijuana legalization, but Rep. Keeley has said she believes she is open to it.

Yara Awad sings the national anthem at the start of the Delaware Senate on the final day of the General Assembly. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

After starting nearly 30 minutes late and failing to post an agenda online, the Senate saw a tense back-and-forth between President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Wilmington Manor, and Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover.

Sen. Bonini was called to introduce a bill he is sponsoring but was unprepared, saying he did not expect it to be released from committee.

Sen. McBride, clearly frustrated, attempted to prevent Sen. Bonini from tabling the bill, leading to Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long calling for order and lawmakers bringing up an attorney to clarify the rules.

Based on the attorney’s ruling, the bill was deferred to the bottom of the agenda.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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