Mad scramble to the finish: Legislative session to start final month

DOVER — It’s the most wonderful time — actually, strike that.

For lawmakers and other veterans of Legislative Hall, June is certainly the busiest time of the year, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the know who would actually call it their favorite month.

On Tuesday legislators return to Dover after a two-week break. They’re set to spend the month finishing the state’s spending bills and debating a variety of issues that could include marijuana legalization, reinstitution of the death penalty and expanded voting access.

The final month of the legislative session is typically a mad scramble to the finish. While the financial pitfalls that have so often plagued lawmakers over the past decade are absent, some fireworks are still likely.

Expect to see some advocates ramp up their efforts with the legislature entering the home stretch, but don’t despair if a bill you’re closely following doesn’t make it to the governor’s desk: Because this is the first leg of the 150th General Assembly, bills not passed by the time lawmakers depart July 1 can still be picked up again in January.

Legislators are set to meet for 13 regularly scheduled days this month, concluding with the typical June 30 marathon, where the General Assembly begins business in the afternoon and remains past midnight (sometimes, as in the past four years, well past midnight). A potential twist that may arise this year is Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride’s January announcement that the Senate will not stay past 1 a.m.

The New Castle Democrat reiterated that earlier this month, stating even if business is not finished when the clock strikes 1, he’ll call for the chamber to adjourn and return in the afternoon.

That declaration was greeted with skepticism and annoyance by many members of the House of Representatives, who were not informed of it beforehand. Of course, lawmakers can avoid any sort of interchamber headbutting by completing everything before 1.

Stay tuned.

For now, here’s a look at what is expected to consume much of the discussion over the final month.

As House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, says, everything starts and ends with the budget.

Fortunately for lawmakers, they don’t have to worry about not having enough money to pay the bills. Because revenue projections have been booming this year, the General Assembly has extra money to play with — a sharp contrast from 2017, when it faced a shortfall in the neighborhood of $350 million.

The Joint Finance Committee wrapped up the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 last week.

While it’s still possible hiccups could arise — political insiders warn that nothing should be taken for granted in Legislative Hall — the budget process so far has been quite smooth.

The spending plan totals about $4.45 billion, an increase of 4.2 percent over the current year’s $4.27 billion general spending plan. That does not include a one-time supplemental bill that appropriates funding for equipment purchases, legal fees and new education funding, among other areas.

Said bill comes to approximately $62 million, about $22.9 million more than what Gov. John Carney recommended in January.

Lawmakers have yet to finalize the capital bond and grant-in-aid bills, which fund construction projects and nonprofits, respectively.

The governor’s recommended bond bill comes to about $678.6 million, but the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement will likely add to that when it begins meeting next week. With approximately $120 million in revenue uncommitted, additional money could also go to the $52.1 million grant-in-aid proposal.

Expect the administration to push for setting aside around $75 million, adding that to $47 million left unspent in the current budget. Budget hawks warn expenses are projected to surpass revenues in the next few years, hence the desire to leave money for future down years.

“The main philosophy of this entire budget process is stability,” Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Quinn Johnson, a Middletown Democrat, said last week. “What can we do to make sure that what promises we’ve made through this budget process exist? … We will be faced with cuts or increases sooner or later, and it’s those days we’re trying to plan for.”

The House is scheduled to vote on a bill creating a crime of unsafe storage of a firearm Tuesday.

The measure was passed by the House in March and by the Senate the following month, but it must be approved by the House a second time because senators attached an amendment. The change, which angered House Democrats, essentially shifts the burden of proof from the gun owner to the state, requiring a prosecutor to establish that a person failed in several ways to properly store a gun.

While the House could try to strip the bill of the amendment, that would send it back to the Senate. And unfortunately for advocates of greater restrictions around firearms, the Senate Democratic caucus has made it very clear this spring it has little appetite for highly controversial gun bills.

Because of that, House Democrats are likely to pass the safe storage bill as is, sending it to Gov. Carney for his signature.

Some Senate Democrats could try to force a floor vote on three gun control bills that failed to get out of committee in May, but such a vote is basically guaranteed to fail.

Democrats may also push a bill to ban untraceable guns and gun parts, although the odds of success don’t appear too strong.

Marijuana legalization
After weeks of promising it was just around the corner, lawmakers introduced a bill that would legalize marijuana last month. If you’re looking forward to getting high legally, don’t get too excited yet: The measure has a long way to go.

The bill is scheduled to receive its committee hearing in the House Wednesday. Seven of the 11 members of the House Revenue & Finance Committee, which the bill has been assigned to, voted for a legalization bill last June.

Gov. Carney opposes legalization.

Ten states allow recreational cannabis use, although just one has approved it through the legislature rather than a ballot initiative.

Death penalty
A bill to reinstate capital punishment for convicted murderers is awaiting action by the House Judiciary Committee. The measure is very similar to a 2017 bill that passed the House but never received a committee hearing in the Senate.

Delaware has been without a death penalty since August 2016, when the state Supreme Court ruled the existing capital punishment law was unconstitutional.

The new bill has bipartisan support, although the issue does not fall solely on party lines. A vote on the proposal would surely be close.

Gov. Carney is against the death penalty but has said he is willing to allow a carve-out for individuals who kill members of law enforcement.

A variety of bills aimed at expanding voting access are awaiting action.

Several pieces of legislation would allow voting by mail and same-day registration and move the primary election to April.

The primary bill passed the House in January and now sits in a Senate committee, while voting by mail is in a House committee. Same-day registration is waiting for a vote by the full House.

Criminal justice
More than a dozen criminal justice bills are making their way through the legislature. Announced in March as part of what Attorney General Kathy Jennings called the “boldest package of criminal justice reforms in modern Delaware history,” the bills would mark a continued shift away from “tough on crime” policies and toward a more rehabilitative approach.

The measures would reform sentencing, offer more resources to inmates leaving prison and lead to a stark decline in the state’s incarcerated population both by releasing individuals from jail and by imprisoning fewer people in the first place — all stated goals of Democratic officials.

Among other things, the bills would give judges more discretion, lessen penalties for many drug crimes, expand adult expungements, limit what fines and fees courts can issue, prevent children younger than 12 from being prosecuted except for rape and murder, make underage possession or consumption of alcohol a civil violation and expand the ability of the Board of Parole to offer conditional release for inmates.

Some have bipartisan support, while others are backed solely by Democrats.

The proposals are in various phases of the legislative process, and many likely won’t be finished by the time lawmakers adjourn for the year.

School dropout age
Legislation filed Thursday would raise the age for mandatory school attendance from 16 to 18 over a two-year period. The measure is similar to bills filed in prior legislative sessions.

Supporters, including Gov. Carney, say the change would provide long-term benefits for teenagers who otherwise would fail to obtain a high school degree.

The dropout rate for the 2016-2017 school year was 1.7 percent.

Fifteen states set the dropout age to 16, while 24 have it at 18.

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