Unusual June 30 will cap off memorable legislative session

DOVER — The Delaware General Assembly will conclude its business for the year this week, wrapping up a truly unique and unforgettable legislative session.

The House of Representatives will meet Monday to pass the capital bond and grant-in-aid bills, followed by the two chambers convening the next day to finish the 2020 session. The House will go in at 2 Monday, with both chambers set to begin proceedings late Tuesday, likely not until around 11:30 p.m.

June 30 is typically a marathon, with lawmakers gaveling in the afternoon or early evening and remaining until past midnight. This year, however, legislators have been meeting virtually over the past 30 days after several months of no action.

Forty-four legislative days were scheduled for 2020, not counting budget hearings. Thanks to COVID-19, legislators met in the Capitol on just nine of them.

The chambers began conducting business through Zoom in late May. Though lawmakers have passed a number of bills, many measures that expected to see substantial debate were instead not touched. Advocates will have to hope for better luck in 2021 (both with the bills and coronavirus).

Each chamber has already approved the operating budget, and the Senate unanimously passed the bond and nonprofit grant-in-aid measures last week, although not without a hassle. The chamber tried to pass the two bills Tuesday, the same day the grant-in-aid legislation was formally filed, but Republicans objected they were not given enough time.

The first vote failed mostly on party lines, prompting a second, ultimately successful one Thursday.

Should the House pass the remaining money bills Monday with a minimum of fuss as expected, legislators, staff and observers would be in for the most drama-free June 30 in a long, long time (pandemic notwithstanding).

That’s welcome news to anyone who has sat through one of the late-night slogs, struggling to keep an eye open around 3 a.m., while wondering why the Legislature is still in.

June 30 is handled this way in normal years because of the state constitution, which mandates that the Legislature finish by June 30 and reserves the power to call lawmakers back for the governor “or the mutual call of the presiding officers of both Houses.”

The practice of entering into a special session July 1 enables lawmakers to avoid a sticky situation that sets up a clash between the executive and legislative branches, such as if the General Assembly hopes to override a gubernatorial veto sometime during the six months off. It’s believed such an incident has never occurred, but legislators have remained unwilling to change this until very recently.

That leads to them sometimes staying in the building passing (or not passing) bills until the sun comes up July 1. In 2018, for instance, the capital budget bill was not approved until 8:30 a.m., about 18 hours after lawmakers gaveled in. That means dozens of lawmakers, aides, lobbyists and reporters sat around for close to a full day without any rest and then drove home, with many facing an hourlong commute.

The General Assembly took steps to end that practice last year and was planning to finish by 1 a.m. July 1 in 2020, although COVID threw everyone a curveball.

While those late-night/early-morning marathons are memorable and can even be exciting at times, the Legislature has in recent years struggled to finish early. In fact, 2019 was the first time since 2014 that lawmakers concluded before 5 a.m. And there was an extraordinary session in 2018, with the chambers returning July 2 to finally pass a budget after reaching an impasse earlier.

June 30 has dropped a few surprises on listeners over the years, for better or worse. Just take 2015, 2017 or 2018, all years in which Democrats and Republicans struggled to find common ground and pass spending bills, or 2012, when House Speaker Bob Gilligan made an unexpected retirement announcement.

At any rate, 2020 should see a hassle-free June 30 at last. Of course, as veterans of Legislative Hall will quickly note, it’s impossible to predict what will happen in the General Assembly. Perhaps, that goes double when members are meeting remotely.