Delaware State News | by Matt Bittle
DOVER — The first leg of the 150th General Assembly is in the books.
Going into session late Sunday afternoon, lawmakers wrapped up business early Monday, marking an uneventful end to the 2019 legislative session.
After failing to finish until around 5 a.m. or later four years in a row the legislature concluded business just after 1 a.m. this time.
Gov. John Carney signed the capital bond and grant-in-aid bills Monday at 1:40 a.m., allowing everyone to head home.
Because this is just the first part of the two-year term, legislation can be picked up where it was left when the General Assembly returns in January.
Among the topics lawmakers will be dealing with then are gun control, marijuana legalization, voting access and minimum wage — but that’s a story for another day.
For now, legislators, their staff and others who work in Legislative Hall are enjoying a break.
“We are investing in the future of our state — improving schools for all Delaware children, fixing roads and bridges in every Delaware community, and responsibly managing taxpayer dollars so we’re prepared to keep investing where it matters most,” Gov. Carney said in a statement. “Our work with members of the General Assembly is paying off.
“Graduation rates are up, unemployment is down, and our state is on sound financial footing, just two years after climbing out of $400 million budget deficit. But we have plenty of work ahead to make sure that all Delaware families have an opportunity to participate in Delaware’s success.
“That’s why we’re investing in high-needs schools, in clean drinking water, affordable housing, open-space, and rural broadband infrastructure — to give more Delaware families a real shot to succeed in the Delaware of the future.”
Both the bond and grant-in-measures passed without opposition, joining the operating budget that was approved with only one vote against June 25. Both the budget — $4.51 billion — and bond — $863 million — are the largest in state history.
Grant-in-aid, which allocates funding for various nonprofits, totals $55 million.
Lawmakers also set aside about $78 million, adding to the nearly $47 million they left unspent last year. By keeping that money in an unofficial reserve account, officials hope to avoid unsustainable budget growth, which Gov. Carney has warned would likely prompt tax hikes or reductions in services within a few years.
The reserve can be accessed in the future when expenditures surpass revenues.
“The bottom line is having another reserve over here that we can go in and out of, it’s going to be good when we have those $20 or $30 million holes. Then we don’t have to go and try cut positions and do all those type of things,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, told reporters after both chambers broke.
Included in the budget is $20 million for students who come from impoverished areas or don’t speak English as a native language, part of $75 million officials plan to spend over three years to help those often-ignored populations and to give elementary schoolers more mental health and reading support. The bond bill contains $20 million the state’s higher education institutions can access for economic development projects, as well as $425 million for transportation-related projects.
Created last year, the Higher Education Economic Development Investment Fund was expanded to include private entities as part of an arrangement to provide state support to Wesley College, which is struggling financially.
Rep. John Kowalko, a Newark Democrat, denounced the $12.5 million allocated to the fund used to incentivize companies to settle or stay in Delaware, noting past deals with businesses like Fisker and Bloom Energy failed to create the promised jobs.
“I’m not saying they’re going to do something illegal or illicit, but I do think we’ve had a failed record in the last (few) years with Strategic Fund investments,” the liberal firebrand told the House, although he ended up voting for the bill.
The House concluded business just before 12:30, and the Senate followed suit about 40 minutes later. Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, announced in January he planned to send senators home once the clock struck 1 regardless of whether business was finished, but he allowed things to run a few minutes late so the longest-serving legislator in state history could make a surprise announcement.
Just before the Senate passed grant-in-aid, Sen. Harris McDowell informed the chamber he will not seek reelection in 2020, concluding a legislative career that began in 1976.
Although the news can’t be said to be a total shock (the Wilmington Democrat is 79), Sen. McDowell is an institution in Legislative Hall, and as co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee for the past eight and a half years, he is one of the most powerful members of the legislature. Colleagues gave him a standing ovation after he tearfully revealed his time in Dover is nearing its end.
The announcement caught people off guard in large part because June 30 retirements generally come in even years, when elections follow the end of session.
The state constitution mandates lawmakers must end on June 30, which also marks the last day of the fiscal year. Because it also gives the governor the sole power to call a special session unless by “mutual call of the presiding officers of both Houses,” legislators gavel out at midnight and enter into a special session.
Republicans filed a bill two months ago that would bump the end of session from midnight to 7 p.m. June 30, but it has not made any progress so far.
The two chambers passed dozens of measures Sunday and Monday, including bills making underage possession of alcohol a civil offense, decriminalizing underage possession of marijuana and giving Levy Court the authority to establish a lodging tax in Kent County for the benefit of the DE Turf.
Gov. Carney also signed a bill establishing mandatory expungements for some misdemeanors and allowing most offenders to apply to have their records closed after a pardon. The measure is one of 19 criminal justice proposals Democrats are pushing, many of which passed this year.
“Delaware has accomplished remarkable reform in a few short months,” Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings said in a statement. “From second chances for many whose criminal records have been a barrier to employment and housing, to greater discretion for judges to craft sentences that fit the facts and circumstances of each individual case, to the restoration of balance to our drug code and beyond, Delawareans are getting a criminal justice system that reflects our values and that rejects one-size-fits-all solutions.
“We owe that progress to so many people — legislators, advocates, prosecutors, and ordinary citizens — and we will continue to fight for reform that keeps us safe, that makes the criminal justice system fair and equal for everyone, and that uphold justice in all its forms.”
The General Assembly will return in January.