That’s a wrap!: Delaware General Assembly end session

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, at Legislative Hall on Thursday.

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, at Legislative Hall on Thursday.

DOVER — Last year, Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly spent nearly six months attempting to negotiate a deal to raise some fees and bring in money for infrastructure projects.

The discussions, which stalled and restarted several times, left several high-ranking legislators frustrated. The deal didn’t come to fruition until the very last hours of the fiscal year.

The final legislative day in 2015 also saw a public disagreement between a small group of House Democrats and the rest of their caucus over items excluded — and included — in the budget. The conflict left a bad taste in the mouth of many Democrats and sore feelings remained for months.

This year, communication between and within caucuses was smoother, lawmakers say, but not without some bumps in the road.

Republicans and Democrats clashed over the ability of the Joint Finance Committee to allocate funds without a vote from the full legislature, with Republicans, members of the minority, protesting the majority was blatantly violating the constitution.

Controversial issues such as gun control and equal rights also led to some sharp words between lawmakers. On June 30, Legislative Hall saw bickering not just along party lines but between the two chambers. Members of the House were frustrated over the Senate’s slower pace, and representatives held up the bond bill until senators had cleared out most of the agenda.

Republicans are optimistic they can claim two seats in the Senate which would flip control and give the GOP the majority in the chamber for the first time since 1972.

The second leg of the 148th General Assembly saw a long-awaited House vote on overturning the death penalty, the first veto override try in 39 years, continued changes in criminal justice, arguments both for and against raising the minimum wage, several gun-control measures and hundreds more proposals.

Like last year, June 30 was a blur of activity and a marathon that stretched well into July 1. Exactly how successful the year was depends to some degree on who is answering that question.

“Hey, we have a balanced budget, and it’s passed, and we did it before June 30. It’s a good session. It is a successful session,” House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said just after midnight on July 1.

House Minority Leader Daniel Short, R-Seaford, took a different view, citing an “immensely uncontrollable” budget and an inability to find common ground on Wilmington redistricting.

“I wouldn’t know that I would classify it as successful. It was a smooth year, got things done,” he said. “I thought it was a successful year in working together and I thought it was a successful year in allowing everybody to engage.”

Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat in his final year in office, judged 2016 as a positive one from a legislative standpoint. He pointed to issues as varied as felon voting rights, crowdfunding and early childhood education.

Economic

In the financial area, perhaps nothing was bigger than the minimum wage debate.

Filed in 2015, Senate Bill 39 would have raised the wage floor from $8.25 to $10.25 in four 50-cent increments. The bill passed the Senate on party lines in January but stalled in a House committee in April.

“We will not be able to stay in the vegetable business if this law goes through, point blank,” Ray Vincent of Vincent Farms said in the committee hearing. “We’re not going to go out of business — we’re going to find some way to feed my six kids, the fifth generation of our family farm. We’re going to find something to do, but we will not be shipping produce.”

Gov. Markell did not publicly take a stance on the measure.

Although no legislation was officially introduced, a task force created by legislation also discussed creating new fees that would be used to clean up the state’s polluted waterways.

The group met several times over the winter and spring. Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, said this year’s planning started the conversation, and he hopes to have legislation introduced in 2017.

Another fee-related proposal was filed as a bill and made it out of committee but no further. Legislation establishing a 5-cent cost for every plastic bag used by a customer at a store failed to advance despite bipartisan support.

Public reaction to the idea was mixed.

The General Assembly fast-tracked two bills designed to land the spinoff companies resulting from the merger of chemical giants DuPont and Dow.

The proposals simplified the tax code slightly, provided more incentives to businesses to invest in the state and expanded research and development tax credits.

Gov. Markell and lawmakers singled those measures out as among the most important pieces of legislation passed in 2016.

Education

The second leg of the 148th General Assembly was consumed by Wilmington school redistricting.

Activists have been pushing for redrawing district lines for decades, which would mean students no longer have to be bused to schools outside the city.

Gov. Markell made a strong statement of support in January by allocating $6 million for the initiative in his budget, but getting the plan through the legislature faced immense difficulties.

A resolution endorsing the plan created by the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission — but not developing a funding mechanism — failed in the Senate after passing the House.

Both chambers did manage to pass legislation calling for further study of redistricting, namely how it would be funded.

Gov. Markell said he viewed that as a victory, although it fell short of what he had initially hoped for.

Any attempt to approve redistricting next session would likely need to include additional funding for low-income districts downstate for the measure to pass.

“The need is not a Wilmington need solely. … Fifty-one percent of all Delaware public school students are low income. Fifty-one percent,” said Tony Allen, chair of WEIC. “We did have by county, the highest percentage of childhood poverty in Sussex County, it’s not in Wilmington. If you do it by city, Wilmington’s at 33 percent. Dover is fast following at 30.

“This is a statewide problem. The more as talk about this as a statewide problem, particularly as it relates to funding allocations for low-income students, English language learners and special education students, K through 3, the more I believe others will see the merits.”

In an illustration of the divide between the executive and legislative branches’ views on education, members of the House tried unsuccessfully to overturn Gov. Markell’s veto of a bill that codifies a parent’s right to opt their children out of standardized testing. The last veto override attempt was in 1977.

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, an outspoken critic of Gov. Markell and the Smarter Balanced standardized test, led the charge. The effort failed in January, but Rep. Kowalko attempted to bring it up one last time June 29.

That, too, was unsuccessful. Rep. Schwartzkopf declared Rep. Kowalko out of order and shifted discussion back to the agenda, with no one seconding Rep. Kowalko’s motion to overturn the speaker’s action.

Social

The social arena dominated discussion inside Legislative Hall at times, with capital punishment, gun control and equal rights grabbing headlines and stirring strong feelings.

In January, less than two hours after the governor’s State of the State Address, the House made a stunning announcement: the death penalty bill, which had failed to get out of committee eight months before, would be released for a floor vote.

It had already passed the Senate and was backed by Gov. Markell, meaning passage would overturn capital punishment in Delaware. The state re-instituted the death penalty in 1961, three years after abolishing it.

Supporters of repeal contend the death penalty is immoral, can lead to an innocent person being executed and claim it is disproportionately applied on minorities and the disadvantaged. Opponents argue it can prevent some crimes and is necessary as a punishment for the worst of the worst.

The House vote failed 23-16. It is possible lawmakers in favor of repeal could keep bringing legislation back until it passes.

The General Assembly also approved a resolution formally apologizing for slavery, making Delaware the ninth state that had slaves at the start of the Civil War to express remorse.

“We affirm that we refuse to forget our past,” Gov. Markell said as he signed the resolution in February. “We accept the responsibility of tearing down the barriers that faced so many of our neighbors as result of abhorrent laws and practices carried out against African-Americans.”

Four legislators voted against the apology, arguing no one alive today had anything to do with the practice of slavery.

After months of work, the legislature expanded the amount for a firearms background check before the gun can be turned over to the customer.

Before the bill was signed into law last week, firearms dealers were allowed to release a gun to a prospective buyer if no background check on that person was returned from the FBI within three days.

House Bill 325 expanded the waiting period to 25 days.

“As long as they remain unknown, we can’t take care of the crazy people,” Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, said during the floor debate. “A lot of crazy people get guns. Like the case in Orlando. Nobody knew the guy was crazy, but he got the guns. We have to end this insanity. We have to end the insanity.”

Two related measures did not receive the needed support, however. After it became apparent a bill preventing the sale of guns to anyone in Delaware on the FBI’s terrorist watchlist would not pass, main sponsor Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, introduced a resolution calling on Congress to pass such a law nationally, something it has repeatedly not done.

That resolution also fell short.

“We have continued to pick away at the Second Amendment, little bit by little bit by little bit. Death by a thousand cuts,” Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, said.

Another unsuccessful Democratic-backed measure would have amended the state constitution to provide an equal-rights clause in an effort, supporters said, to guarantee equal protection for people of all races, religions, genders and sexual orientations.

“We know that women of child-bearing age are often denied certain jobs, that violence against women has reached epidemic proportions and that hatred and intolerance of gays and transgenders is still very much with us,” Sen. Peterson claimed in arguing for the bill, which was tabled.

But Senate Minority Leader F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said at the committee hearing one week before the bill was discussed on the floor, “I think a lot of people are concerned that under a strict interpretation … when we talk about gender identity that this could open up girls’ gyms and dressing rooms in schools.”

Looking ahead and back

The General Assembly is guaranteed to have at least two new members next year, with Sen. Peterson and Rep. Harold “Jack” Peterman, R-Milford, not running for re-election. Four senators are seeking higher office, which could lead to special elections in the fall.

Gov. Markell said his final year overseeing the legislature was largely a productive one, although he did note lawmakers failed to adopt health-care reforms he proposed.

Steps toward shrinking the state’s budget put forth by the governor in each of the past two years have been unsuccessful, with lawmakers lacking the appetite to scale back a senior property-tax subsidy in 2015 and to essentially limit employee benefits this year.

Money troubles do remain. Leading lawmakers have pledged to overhaul the budget in new ways next year, but only time will tell how successful that is — and how much the General Assembly follows through on it.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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