Legislative session enters final month with budget unresolved

DOVER — For Delaware’s political observers, June has a special meaning: It’s the final month of the legislative session.

This is the first leg of the 149th General Assembly, meaning all bills that don’t pass by the end of the month can be picked up again in January.

While it can be frustrating for lawmakers and advocates of a cause to wait more than six months to see their proposal receive further consideration, the additional time can have benefits.

The wait gives backers more chances to lobby and legislators more time to assuage their colleagues’ concerns.

As always, legislators have many issues on their plates as June 30 nears.

Budget shortfall

The budget is of paramount concern.

Lawmakers are working to fill a shortfall between projected revenue and expenses of close to $400 million.

The budget-writing Joint Finance Committee has made approximately $80 million in cuts. Democrats and Republicans have reached a deal on increasing the franchise tax, taking in about $116 million.

That stills leaves a significant hill to climb, however. The caucuses have been meeting regularly to discuss ways to balance the budget. Gov. John Carney proposed increasing income and cigarette taxes, but Republicans have been resistant to tax hikes thus far. Democrats oppose further cuts in projected spending.

Two years ago the budget wasn’t finalized until June 30, the last day of the fiscal year and the final regularly scheduled legislative day of the year. Something similar could occur this year.

For those following some of the legislature’s hot-button issues, such as legalization of cannabis and reinstatement of the death penalty, finishing the budget well before June 30 is a big positive because it frees up time for other subjects.

“The sooner we can get it done the better off I am in running the rest of the session,” said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach.

Marijuana legislation

Marijuana legalization is currently awaiting a vote on the House floor after passing out of committee last month. If the bill is approved by the full chamber it will go the Senate.

Passage is generally seen as unlikely, particularly because the proposal requires a supermajority in both chambers.

House Bill 110 would allow individuals at least 21 years old to buy the drug from licensed shops, making Delaware the ninth state in the nation with legal cannabis.

Businesses could acquire a license for $5,000 to sell marijuana with a $10,000 renewal fee every two years. A tax of $50 per ounce would be placed on marijuana flowers, and all other parts of the plant would have a $15-per-ounce tax.

State residents would not be allowed to grow their own plants, unlike most of the states with legal marijuana.

Supporters insist the drug is less harmful than alcohol and should not be banned, but opponents note it can have negative effects on users.

Main sponsor Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, said an estimate shows the bill could bring in up to $25 million to the state government in the first full fiscal year.

Gov. Carney said in a statement he wants to “wait and see how Delaware’s decriminalization law continues to be implemented, and monitor progress in other states, before taking any additional steps.”

Death penalty

The state has been without a death penalty since the Delaware Supreme Court struck it down in August, ruling portions were unconstitutional. But a bill to re-establish it is currently awaiting a Senate committee hearing.

House Bill 125 has bipartisan support, having passed the House 24-16.

The previous death penalty statute allowed a judge to make the final decision whether the convicted killer would be sentenced to death. But Delaware’s high court concluded that violated the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees a trial by jury.

The new bill uses many of the same procedures as the old statute but requires unanimous jury agreement for a sentence of death.

Supporters of the death penalty say it helps prevent crime and it is, after all, punishment for committing murder. Opponents claim capital punishment is disproportionately applied to minorities, the poor and the mentally ill and does not serve as a deterrent.

Economic development

Gov. Carney has proposed reforming the Delaware Economic Development Office into a public-private partnership. The new group is designed to spur economic development and bolster private investment in Delaware businesses. The governor is hoping legislation replacing the office can be passed this month.

Lawmakers of both parties are also working to change the Coastal Zone Act, a 1971 law that limits industrial activity and development along the state’s coast.

The original Coastal Zone Act banned bulk product transfer facilities near the coast, and House Bill 190, which has bipartisan support, would create an exemption for 14 sites. Thirteen of the sites are above the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

The proposal is part of Gov. Carney’s plan to grow the economy but faces opposition from environmentalists.

“We can and should responsibly redevelop Delaware’s industrial sites, clean them up and put them back to work for Delawareans,” the governor said in a statement. “This legislation would allow additional flexibility for the 14 existing heavy industry sites within the Coastal Zone, and only those sites.

“It would open these sites up for additional redevelopment and job creation — while maintaining a commitment to environmental protection. We should do what we can to add good-paying jobs for all Delawareans, while continuing to protect our natural resources. The responsible changes in this bill meet that test.”

The bill is awaiting its initial committee hearing.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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