Fresh faces and familiar issues: 150th General Assembly opens this week

DOVER — When legislators gather Tuesday at the state capitol for the opening of the 150th General Assembly, there will be a lot of fresh faces.

In fact, nearly a quarter of the General Assembly’s 62 members — three senators and 12 representatives — are completely new to the body and that doesn’t count two senators who were formerly state representatives.

That turnover could create some bumps in the road and confusion early on. But it could also spur fresh ideas.

Members of both parties are excited about their new colleagues, although enthusiasm among Democrats is especially high after an election that saw the party gain a seat in each chamber and knock out two members of the Republican leadership.

Democrats now hold a 12-9 edge in the Senate and a 26-15 advantage in the House.

With so many people retiring in 2018, plenty of new names are serving on committees. Some of the building’s top officeholders are also different: Owing to legislators not seeking re-election, being defeated or simply preferring not to be a in leadership position again, three of the four Republicans and two of the six Democrats in leadership in the 150th General Assembly did not have similar roles last year.

Bolstered by November’s “blue wave” and some of Legislative Hall’s new members, Democrats in 2019 and 2020 will push legislation that might not have had success in prior years.

Whether the progressive movement which saw a handful of key victories on ballots in the fall keeps growing could determine the outcome of some of these ideas.

Of course, there will be plenty of politics as well. Republicans will continue to fight policies favored by the leftwing of the Democratic Party, such as higher income taxes and an increased minimum wage.

Democrats are certain to oppose some ideas the GOP strongly endorses and could attempt to spotlight, such as prevailing wage reform and abortion restrictions.

A few issues stand out as likely to garner substantial attention. If some of them seem familiar, it’s because they are: Many of the areas that will drive debate were discussed in the 149th General Assembly (and the 148th, and the 147th, and so on).

Each session consists of two “legs,” meaning all bills still on the table when lawmakers break for the year on July 1 can be picked up again in January 2020 when the Legislature resumes.

For now, here’s a look at some of the subjects expected to spark considerable discussion in this new year.

In addition to these, topics like education and economic development are also certain to get their fair shares of attention.

Budget

Any analysis of major legislative issues has to start with the budget, which lawmakers are constitutionally mandated to balance every year. However, that’s been tricky for them of late.

Shortfalls between projected expenses and revenue have been common over the past decade, a large chunk of which saw Delaware’s economy sputter due to the so-called Great Recession of 2007-09. Political fights over spending are nothing new, but they’ve caused some serious frustrations in recent years.

In 2017, Gov. John Carney’s first year in office, lawmakers missed their budget deadline for the first time in 40 years after failing to reach a compromise on raising taxes to bring in more revenue for governement. After being forced to return on July 2 in a new fiscal year, legislators hashed out their differences and found consensus.

It was an experience no one wanted to repeat. But despite everyone swearing 2018 would be different, in the end, it was far too close for comfort.

What was expected to be a simple final night of the 149th General Assembly dragged on into July 1 with key money bills not passed, the result of a philosophical clash between Democrats and Republicans over raising the minimum wage that led to Republicans voting against the capital bond bill.

After several hours of closed-door negotiations, during which tensions swirled and speculation ran rampant, lawmakers compromised, and everyone left Legislative Hall on July 1, although not after a substantial amount of angst.

Will 2019 be different?

Gov. Carney is expected to continue pushing a “budget smoothing” measure that would essentially cap spending, setting aside extra revenue for tough budget years.

Republicans are very supportive of that idea, but while some Democrats endorse the concept, they’re hesitant about making such a change in the constitution which would then be tougher to amend.

Legislation to create such a fund was introduced but failed to advance after members of the governor’s own party turned against it. Gov. Carney signed an executive order in June that seeks to accomplish what the bill would have done, but it is nonbinding on the Legislature.

While revenue projections appear rosy this year, it won’t be long before they again fall short of “expenditure growth.”

“The challenge will be how we spend our money this year knowing that those lines are going to cross again next year or the year after as those spending increase rates are greater than the revenue increase rates, if that makes sense,” Gov. Carney said last month.

“So the conversation needs to continue but it needs to continue in the context of finding a mix and a balance. And then this year it’ll be, much like last year, we have this extra revenue, should we spend it in the operating budget or should we put it to one-time investments that don’t recur, that make it harder next year when those lines get closer together.

“Particularly with a lot of new people, 20 or 25 percent of each chamber’s new, so they’re all coming down here eager and energetic, ready to do things and ready to spend money.”

He will unveil his budget recommendations at the end of this month.

Guns

After a year where so much of what happened in Legislative Hall revolved around firearms, there are fewer remaining gun-related issues left to be debated.

However, a couple of bills filed last year in response to mass shootings elsewhere in the country did not pass. They could be revived, particularly a measure to ban the sale of “assault-style” weapons.

Last year’s version failed to advance out of committee, even after a rare attempt to suspend the rules and force a floor vote in the Democratic=controlled Senate.

Democrats may have the numbers in both chambers to pass the legislation this year, but they may also want to stay away from the highly divisive issue. Gov. Carney backed the ban.

Opponents of more firearm restriction rallied against the bills and were able to generate enough opposition to kill some of them. If related legislation is filed again in 2019, expect Second Amendment rights groups to again flex their muscles.

Marijuana

Lawmakers will at some point introduce a measure that would legalize cannabis.

A bill to that end fell short of the needed supermajority for passage in the House last year, and the two main advocates of legalization did not run for re-election.

However, others are expected to step up and with marijuana legalization becoming more accepted by society, there may be enough support to force the legislation through.

Ten states allow recreational pot use, and New Jersey could join that group this month.

Criminal justice reform

Continued changes to the criminal justice system, which has seen a shift toward a more forgiving and rehabilitative model in recent years, are likely. New Attorney General Kathy Jennings, a Democrat, has pledged to push for bail reform and a reduction in the prison population, policies that generate strong support among most Democrats.

Gov. Carney is on board with changes.

Lawmakers are likely to further examine the opioid epidemic as well.

Voting

The Democratic majority is expected to attempt to expand voter rights, a core component of the party platform. Measure to be filed could include same-day voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, early voting and voting by mail.

Some of those proposals were debated in the 149th General Assembly and even passed a chamber.

Clean water

Senate Majority Whip Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat, hopes to continue pushing a measure that would create a new fee to be used to fund cleanup of Delaware’s polluted waterways.

The bill did not make it far in the 149th General Assembly, partly due to the governor’s desire for tax measures to be done in one package.

“The administration wants to have it be part of the broader budget conversation, and I get that, but if a broader solution isn’t forthcoming yet then let’s not have any delays on clean water,” Sen. Townsend said last month.

Even if every Democrat votes in favor, any tax bill needs one Republican vote to pass in the Senate.

Death penalty

Not every high-profile proposal comes from the progressive, or liberal, movement. Lawmakers could try again to reinstate the death penalty, which the Delaware Supreme Court in 2016 ruled was unconstitutional, as written.

A bill putting capital punishment back into place for convicted murderers passed the House in 2017 but never got a vote in the Senate.

Whether supporters have enough votes to force it through remains to be seen, but a Senate vote would likely be close.

Communication

Some lawmakers have grown frustrated with the administration at times over the past two years. Both Democrats and Republicans have their own complaints of the executive branch, although they generally stay behind closed doors.

Gov. Carney angered some of the more liberal members of his party with his budget smoothing executive order and October vetoes of two finance-related bills that passed months earlier with broad support. Democrats also have been on occasion annoyed by what they see as a lack of bold leadership from the governor’s office.

Republican grievances stem from more obvious political differences.

House Minority Leader Danny Short, a Seaford Republican, said lawmakers generally have a good relationship with Gov. Carney. But, he wants to see Republicans have a chance to be more involved in crafting policy.

His counterpart across the aisle, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, described the first two years of the governor’s term as a “feeling-out” period, noting it takes time to get to know a chief executive.

Publicly, lawmakers have largely been complimentary of the governor and his work with the General Assembly.

Although they acknowledge there have been a few missteps along the way, they’ve also sought to downplay them as a normal part of governing.

“I’m looking forward to the next two years,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

AT A GLANCE

Delaware’s legislators return to Dover Tuesday to start the 150th General Assembly. The schedule:

• Jan. 8 to Jan. 24 — in session Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays

• Jan. 29 to Feb. 28 — Joint Finance and Capital Improvement committees meet Monday through Thursday except for Feb. 18

• March 5 to March 28 — In session Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays

• April 9 to April 18 — In session Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays

• May 7 to May 16 — In session Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays

• May 20 to May 30 — Joint Finance and Capital Improvement committees meet Monday through Thursday except for May 27

• June 4 to June 27 — In session Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays

• June 30 — last regularly scheduled day of the first leg of the 150th General Assembly

SENATE

• 12 Democrats, nine Republicans

• Leadership — President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-New Castle; Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View

• Five new members

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

• 26 Democrats, 15 Republicans

• Leadership — House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach; Minority Leader, Danny Short, R-Seaford

• 12 new members

 

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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