Delaware budget approved; final day of legislative session arrives

Delaware State News | by Matt Bittle

DOVER — The House of Representatives approved the state budget Wednesday, sending it to Gov. Jack Markell ahead of the final day of the legislative session.

Lawmakers have their last chance to approve any legislation today when they gavel in in the evening on what is also the close of the fiscal year.

Wednesday was a late day with many legislators not leaving the state capitol until well past 9 p.m. They did make progress on the money bills, however, with the Bond Committee crafting most of the state’s capital spending plan and the House approving the budget one day after the Senate did the same.

Thirty-one representatives voted in favor of the budget, while eight stood against it; opponents were evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Those who voted no on the budget cited several reasons: the failure of Wilmington school redistricting, cuts to general assistance funds and, according to one lawmaker, a repeated refusal to plan ahead.

“We’ve been kicking the can down the road, we’ve been passing the buck,” said Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, who also stated that “taxpayers are carrying this increased burden.”

Rep. Stephanie Bolden, D-Wilmington, argued legislators were “continuously failing” Wilmington school children by failing to redraw school-district lines.

“I don’t understand what the problem is,” she said. “We are supposed to be neighbors in one state.”

The House last week passed a resolution for redistricting, but it has yet to come up for a Senate vote despite pleas from several lawmakers Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Bond Committee claimed $6 million that had been set aside for redistricting, leaving little doubt about the future of the endeavor.

Wednesday’s budget vote came with a bit of controversy on the floor, including one outspoken lawmaker and House leadership openly feuding.

Speaking on the floor before the vote, Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, praised the final product crafted by legislators.

“This budget funds our police, our teachers, our prosecutors, our correction officers,” she said. “It funds drug and alcohol treatment, it funds housing and care for people with disabilities, it funds health care for poor children, it funds training and employment programs to help people get jobs and so much more.”

As he did the year before, Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, attempted to amend language that overrides state law and allows charter schools to keep excess transportation funding. The amendment failed, with just eight votes in support.

Rep. Kowalko, who has clashed with many other members of the General Assembly, including his own caucus, engaged in a brief verbal spat with the two top Democrats in the House after the budget vote.

As he attempted to argue lawmakers had not followed proper procedures in a January effort he led to unsuccessfully overturn the governor’s veto on an education-related bill, he was cut off by House Majority Leader Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, and Speaker of the House Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach.

“Rep. Kowalko, your inquiry is out of order,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

“I don’t think you can rule that way, Mr. Speaker,” Rep. Kowalko replied. “I would suggest I make a motion that we overrule your point to declare me out of order.”

The motion received no second and died, with lawmakers moving on to discuss the remaining bills on the agenda.

Afterward, as legislators and observers gathered for the Bond Committee hearing, talk in the room revolved around Rep. Kowalko’s motion.

Legislative Hall will see more action today, as lawmakers push for their proposals knowing the measures will officially be defeated if they are not approved by both chambers by the time legislators depart in the early hours of Friday morning.

Once the 148th General Assembly has closed, any measures that failed to pass over the past 18 months cannot be brought back as new legislation until lawmakers reconvene in January. By then, the makeup of the General Assembly will have seen at least a little change, courtesy of the election later this year.

As lawmakers prepare for the annual June 30 marathon, the biggest non-budgetary proposal sitting before them is Wilmington school redistricting, but the proposal is in its death throes.

If approved, redistricting would end the decades-long procedure of busing children to schools outside the state’s largest city, a practice that a report on redistricting said has caused “fragmentation.”

However, opponents have objected to a potential hefty cost, and downstate lawmakers have argued high-poverty schools in lower Delaware need additional funding as well.

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