Final day dawns: A look back at the legislative session

DOVER — This time, they swear, will be different.

As lawmakers head into the capitol this afternoon for the final regularly scheduled day of the 2019 legislative session, there are seemingly realistic hopes the General Assembly will finish earlier than it has in each of the past four years.

June 30 is a marathon, with legislators gaveling in sometime in the afternoon or early evening and remaining in the building until July 1 — sometimes even until sunrise.

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 enter 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. While 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.

At any rate, optimism seems to be in the air heading into today. The budget was signed Tuesday, the earliest it’s been approved by the governor since 2003, and the Senate has already sent the capital bond bill to the House.

Because this is the first leg of the two-year 150th General Assembly, legislation not passed by the time lawmakers exit July 1 can be picked up again next year.

Technically, lawmakers could come in today, pass the bond and grant-in-aid measures and depart, although there’s no chance they will neglect many of the dozens of other proposals awaiting action.

Exactly what time lawmakers depart remains to be seen, although Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, has pledged the Senate will leave at 1 a.m. regardless of whether everything is finished. Should the clock hit 1 with legislative business still before the chamber, Sen. McBride intends to stop discussion and have senators return the next day.

That artificial constraint puts a bit of pressure on lawmakers to finish up by 1, although House leadership was caught off guard by the January announcement and would prefer to conclude everything Monday.

Naturally, it remains to be seen if the Senate sticks to the pro tem’s promise if push comes to shove.

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David McBride

Legislators haven’t finished until around 5 a.m. — or later — each of the past four years, including 2017, which saw them fail to pass a budget by July 1. That year, the legislature entered into an extraordinary session and did not approve a spending plan until July 3.

Those in Legislative Hall doubtless remember the saga that was 2018, when officials swore left and right they expected to finish shortly after midnight. Instead, a fight over minimum wage torpedoed the bond bill and left spectators wondering if a repeat of 2017 was inevitable.

Fortunately for all involved, Democrats and Republicans found consensus after hours of closed-door negotiations and sent the bond bill to Gov. John Carney just after 8:30 a.m.

Bleary-eyed lawmakers, aides, lobbyists, reporters and others then departed the building, with some fuming over what many saw as self-inflicted wounds.

Given that, insiders and observers could be forgiven for skepticism about when exactly the General Assembly finishes this year. As the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

The 150th General Assembly opened in January with a startling amount of new blood. In total, 15 of the building’s 62 legislators were newly elected in 2018, and that doesn’t count two former state representatives who won Senate seats in November.

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, praised the dynamic in the House while noting the session has — knock on wood — not been as bumpy or eventful as it was in 2018.

“It has been so much different than last year, it really has been,” he said last week. “We came into this thing worried about the 12 (new representatives) and the impact they would have, whether it be negative or positive and everything, but been pleasantly surprised with how they’ve interacted with the members that have been here a while. We’ve had members that have been here for a while taking the new people under their wing and mentoring them and teaching them the right way to do things.”

Of course, that isn’t to say 2019 has been devoid of anything notable. As longtime observers can attest, Legislative Hall is seldom dull for long.

Among the headliners from this session are bills raising the age to buy tobacco, revamping the criminal justice system, banning plastic bags, expanding health care access and placing greater restrictions around gun storage.

One of the biggest moves could turn out to be Gov. Carney’s “opportunity fund,” an allocation intended to benefit students in need of extra support and services.

The operating budget contains $20 million for students who hail from low-income areas or do not speak English as a native language, the first year of a three-year initiative the governor hopes will make a difference in the startling number of disadvantaged students who are not at grade level in math and English language arts.

According to a lawsuit filed against the state that cites standardized test scores, 75 percent of low-income students failed to meet state standards in math for the 2015-2016 school year, while 85 percent of English language learners fell short of the target in English.

Gov. Carney, a Democrat, cited as another key takeaway from this session the fact something was not included in the budget — specifically, about $78 million.

With revenues booming for the second consecutive year, lawmakers opted to heed the executive branch’s calls for fiscal sustainability, putting more money into the bond bill and holding millions in reserve instead of sending it all to the budget.

That $78 million joins the nearly $47 million legislators set aside last year in an unofficial account that can be used when expenditures surpass revenues, as is projected to happen in the next few years. By planning ahead, decision-makers are hopeful they can avoid tax hikes or cuts in state services in the near future.

“Well, clearly the most important thing is our budget, and I’m really pleased with the fact that the legislature followed the new approach, the new rules we set out that we think are a more responsible way of spending taxpayer money,” Gov. Carney, who served as Delaware’s secretary of finance from 1997 to 2000, said last week.

This year’s budget totals $4.51 billion once a $62 million supplement for one-time items is included. The spending plan marks an increase of 4.4 percent over the budget for the fiscal year ending today.

The bond bill is $863 million, the highest total in state history.

Lawmakers still have to craft the grant-in-aid measure, which allocates funding to hundreds of nonprofits.

The Joint Finance Committee is scheduled to meet today at 3 to finalize the bill, which is expected to total about $1 or $2 million more than the current $52 million allocation.

Among the most notable — certainly the most controversial — measures from this session are three bills that did not even come close to passing.

Legislation to prohibit a variety of semi-automatic firearms classified as “assault weapons,” criminalize magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds and establish a permitting process to buy a gun failed to make it out of a Senate committee despite assurances from Senate Democratic leadership the bills would at least see a floor vote.

The decision by Sen. McBride and Majority Leader Nicole Poore, a New Castle Democrat, not to sign the bills out of committee revealed a division in the party as infighting spilled into public view.

Backers hope to try again next year, but their odds are slim, to say the least.

Some of the bills that were filed this year but have barely begun to make their way through the legislative process include measures to legalize marijuana, raise the minimum wage to $15, reinstate the death penalty, allow physician-assisted suicide and ban paper bags. A bill to prohibit plastic straws might be among the items introduced and debated next year, as well as legislation expanding voting access.

Overall, Gov. Carney said he believes the first leg of the 150th General Assembly has been a successful one.

“There were issue obviously where different sides disagreed, but I think we continued the tradition of trying to find ways to find the common ground and get things done for our state, so I think it’ll go down as a very productive session,” he said.

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