COMMENTARY: Delaware Way ‘may be a thing of the past’

Yes, the Delaware General Assembly missed the budget deadline by a couple days. But it’s not the end of the world, folks.

Congress hasn’t passed a budget and the 13 appropriations bills required to fund the federal government by the Sept. 30 deadline in so many years folks can barely remember when they ever did.

Back in the day, Congress convened in early January (as it still does). It met until early summer, sometimes right about now. It passed the required number of appropriations bills and then adjourned until the next January. Those were the days when senators went back home and worked at their regular jobs.

Reid K. Beveridge

One reason this worked so was well was that, before air conditioning, Washington, D.C. becomes uninhabitable right about the Fourth of July. Back in the day, foreign governments built summer homes for their ambassadors up in the Catoctin Mountains of western Maryland. Hotels and apartments weren’t any more air conditioned than were the Capitol and congressional office buildings.

State legislatures are all over the place on this. In Maryland, the deadline is April 30 and they mostly meet it. The deadline is not so much for the budget as it is the mandatory adjournment date. Some state constitutions have those.

Texas, where I covered state government for five years, is even more rigid. There, the legislature begins in early January in odd-numbered years and must adjourn 140 calendar days later under its constitution. This is usually the day after Memorial Day. And that’s it for two full years.

In more recent years, it has been common for the Texas governor to veto some or all of these budgets, which often appear as if by magic only a day or two before adjournment. Then a special session is required. It’s hot in Austin in July and August. If the governor has vetoed the second year of the original budget, another special session may be required a year later. That happened a lot, too.

Then there is Wisconsin, where I covered the legislature for seven years. There are no similar constitutional rules there. Even more so than Texas or Delaware, there is a strong history in Wisconsin of stuffing all sorts of policy and programmatic things into the budget.

One year, the governor tried to merge the state college system into the University of Wisconsin system in the budget. You may have guessed this was a little controversial. The budget didn’t pass until October that year.

Two years later, now with a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in both houses, the budget hadn’t passed either house by early August. Back then, the state Capitol was not air conditioned. True, some individual offices were, but the main spaces were not. The building is an enormous granite structure that stays cooler longer than most. But when the granite heats up, it is — well — unpleasant. Neither the Assembly (lower house) nor the Senate chambers was air conditioned.

About Aug. 5, the Senate and Assembly leaders gave up. They called it quits until mid-September. In Wisconsin, there is no deadline for budget approval and no government shutdown. Things just chunk along until the next budget is approved and published.

New York State also has a deadline of April 30. It almost never is met. There, individual legislators have almost nothing to say about the budget’s contents. In Albany, the budget is developed by three men: The governor, the Assembly speaker and the Senate majority leader. In modern times and currently, the governor and Assembly speaker are Democrats, while the Senate majority leader is a Republican.

At some point, the budget bill pops out of this closed-door meeting like some unexpected baby. Then members are expected to vote for it nearly sight-unseen. Mostly, they do.

Delaware Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, has been comparing Delaware with Illinois recently. Illinois is, for all practical purposes, bankrupt. Illinois has big Democratic majorities in both houses, but not two-thirds. But Illinois also has a Republican governor, a Chicago businessman. He routinely vetoes spending bills. Until recently, the legislature has failed to override those vetoes because Republican legislators stuck with the Republican governor. The other week, they finally caved.

By the way, the two most recent Illinois governors are or were in prison.

In Delaware, we often, or at least used, to call the way we do things “the Delaware Way.” That meant that Republicans and Democrats eventually came together to do good stuff. That may now be a thing of the past.

Democrats won’t vote to cut spending. They won’t even vote to cut increases in spending. House Speaker Pete Schwarzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, says House Democrats think that is too painful.

This year’s budget, like those of the past few years, kicks the can down the road to next year. What we see, though, is this: Republicans won’t vote for tax increases. Democrats won’t vote for spending cuts.

If taxes don’t go up, the budget doesn’t balance. Or if spending doesn’t go down, the budget doesn’t balance.

Take your pick. Drink your cod liver oil.

Reid K. Beveridge has covered politics in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Delaware and Washington, D.C. He is now retired at Broadkill Beach.

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