Legislature finishes budget after a second consecutive marathon June 30

Delaware State News | by Matt Bittle

DOVER — Flanked by lawmakers, Gov. Jack Markell signed the budget bill just after 5:15 a.m., bringing to a close a day that began 17 hours before for some.

Although lawmakers were optimistic the General Assembly would be finished earlier than last year, a dispute between the Senate and House of Representatives caused a significant delay, and the governor did not approve the three budget, bond and grant-in-aid bills until the sun began creeping up over the horizon.

The $4.08 billion budget, the first spending plan in Delaware history to surpass $4 billion, marks an increase of about $175 million from the year before. The capital budget totals about $501 million, although more than half of that comes from the Department of Transportation’s budget. Lawmakers also allocated $45.9 million for nonprofits in the grant-in-aid bill, avoiding cuts.

The budget includes a pay raise of $750 or 1.5 percent — whichever is greater — for state employees.

The bond and grant-in-aid bills passed with little opposition, receiving a combined three votes against.

One of those came from Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, who objected to the $10 million given to the Strategic Fund, which is used to entice companies to settle in the state.

“I can no longer honestly support a measure, no matter how important the rest of it is, when it involves taking taxpayer money and forfeiting it to a corporate extortion racket,” he said. “This happens all over the country. We have no way of stopping this, but we have to stop it. We can’t afford it.”

Reps. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, and David Wilson, R-Bridgeville, also cast “no” votes due to limited funding for land-preservation initiatives.

The budget was approved by both chambers earlier in the week, and while it faced more resistance, there was not enough to seriously threaten passage.

Lawmakers traditionally gavel in in the evening on June 30, the final day on the legislative calendar, and remain in session until the early morning hours of July 1, when they enter into a special session. The final day, which sees dozens of bills are debated, can be especially chaotic in even-numbered years, when the two-year session ends after June 30.

It can be exhilarating and draining, a marathon that includes both routine legislation and last-minute surprises.
This year, the end of session dragged on at times, with the Senate falling behind the House’s pace amidst a flood of legislation. With some members of the House growing frustrated with the Senate over its inability to quickly approve legislation, tensions were high at times.

The Senate went in at 6, with the House following an hour later, although the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement actually began meeting at noon Thursday.
Legislative Hall was packed early on, its halls crawling with lobbyists, state officials and other observers, although by 2 a.m. the crowd had thinned out substantially.

Cabinet secretaries mingled outside Gov. Markell’s office on the second floor of Legislative Hall, while the governor himself celebrated his last June 30 as governor by biking to Legislative Hall — a ride of some 50 miles.

Although legislators confronted dozens of issues on June 30 and July 1, none were more significant than Wilmington school redistricting and the budget.

Activists have pushed for redrawing school district lines so students in Wilmington are no longer being bused outside the city, an issue that has vexed many educators, Wilmington residents and public officials for more than half a century.

A measure to do just that passed the House last week but faced stiff opposition in the Senate and was voted down.

However, the chambers did manage to pass legislation ordering a study on the cost of shifting Wilmington students to a different school district, a move Gov. Markell referred to as a victory.

“It could have gone in a very different direction. It could have died,” he said. “And I, sort of having been part of a lot of these conversations, I am encouraged by where it ended up. It’s not everything that we would have wanted on the timeframe we would have wanted it but we are still in the business of figuring it out, and that could have ended.”

Should the legislature take up the cause as expected in the next General Assembly, additional funding would likely need to be provided for low-income districts downstate for the measure to pass.

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