Bill to help furloughed feds fails as tensions rise

DOVER — Gov. John Carney hoped to have on his desk by 6 p.m. Wednesday two bills that would aid federal employees financially impacted by the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

He only got one of them.

Senate Republicans voted down a bill that would have offered loans guaranteed by the state of one month’s salary up to $5,000, arguing it would set a dangerous precedent.

The measure, one sponsor said afterward, appears to be dead.

While the bill received 15 votes in favor on the first attempt, it needed a three-fourths supermajority of 16 because it effectively expends money to a corporation. A second try also came up one vote short.

Introduced and passed unanimously by the House Tuesday, House Bill 3 would set aside $80,000 to allow furloughed and unpaid federal workers to receive loans to cover expenses.

Loans would be available through M&T Bank, with interest rates at 2.5 percent, according to the governor’s office, although other financial institutions could also opt to participate.

Approximately 525 Delawareans who work for the federal government are impacted by the shutdown, which hit day 33 Wednesday. As Democrats and Republicans in Washington continue to fight over funding for a border security wall, the government remains partially closed, with about 800,000 employees going unpaid.

Delaware senators did pass legislation allowing federal government employees, including contractors, to seek a temporary stay from a court on a wide variety of payments, from rent to fines to insurance premiums.

A stay could last through the entire duration of the shutdown and up to 120 days thereafter for employees determined to have “been materially affected by the shutdown.”

The proposal, House Bill 2, passed the House 37-4 Tuesday. Wednesday, it was approved by the Senate 13-6, with one member abstaining and another absent. Like House Bill 3, all the opposition came from Republicans.

Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican, protested House Bill 3 would eventually lead to the state guaranteeing loans for many other Delawareans, saying he would be willing to contribute to a GoFundMe to help federal employees but would not allocate taxpayer money for those purposes. Republicans also felt the bills were being unnecessarily rushed, and some argued House Bill 2 could be unconstitutional because it would override private contracts.

After the loan bill initially fell one vote shy of passage, Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat and one of the Senate prime sponsors, switched his vote for procedural reasons and the chamber took a brief recess.

When senators reconvened, they took another vote on the bill, and although Sen. Townsend said he was hopeful the outcome would be different, it wasn’t. The six Republicans opposed to the measure remained united, and the proposal again fell one vote short.

Although the bill could still be revived, that appears unlikely, and the vote could remain a point of contention for lawmakers in the months to come.

Sparks flew on the Senate floor due to a debate over procedure that ultimately prompted Sen. Dave Lawson, a Marydel Republican, to make a request in jest to change his vote after the second attempt to approve House Bill 3 failed.

While Sen. Lawson was doing so simply to make a statement about switching a vote after the roll call, Democrats took exception, with Majority Leader Nicole Poore, a New Castle Democrat, accusing him of making light of people not receiving a paycheck.

With anger in his voice, Sen. Bonini jumped to his colleague’s defense.

“There isn’t a single member of this caucus who doesn’t take their concerns seriously, and if you think we would joke about that, that is just absolutely inappropriate,” he fired back.

Sen. Townsend said afterward he was hopeful banks would still offer loans to federal employees despite the state failing to pass the legislation.

Dover Federal Credit Union, for one, is advertising loans of up to 75 percent of a worker’s net pay for each paycheck missed.

The loans would initially be interest-free and then convert to a 3 percent rate 60 days after the shutdown is over.

Democrats made their frustrations clear after the votes, lamenting that Republicans failed Delawareans.

“I think it’s extremely sad if a legislator is advocating a GoFundMe account as a backstop to his ‘no’ vote on what could be an effective program,” Sen. Townsend said.

But Republicans were also angry with their counterparts, both over the measure itself and over what they saw as the majority flouting Senate rules.

Gov. Carney, who was set to be in Wilmington at 7 for the Delaware Blue Coats’ first game in their new fieldhouse, wanted a quick vote on both bills to allow him to sign them before he left Dover.

But, as is so often the case in the General Assembly, obstacles arose.

In a statement, a spokesman for Gov. Carney applauded the passage of House Bill 2 but said he was “disappointed Senate Republicans rejected legislation that would have provided help for federal workers in Delaware who are going without pay through no fault of their own.”

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

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