Legislative Hall, Dover Delaware

Legislative Hall, Dover

While the state Senate passed the FY 2021 budget ahead of the June 30th deadline, lawmakers failed to pass two key additional spending bills.

Republican senators expressed concerns that neither they nor the public had time to review the Grant-in-Aid or bond bills. Grant-in-Aid was passed by the Joint Finance Committee 25 hours ago while the bond bill was completed last Thursday.

The $54.4 million Grant-in-Aid bill gives non-profits, local fire companies, and senior centers the same level of funding that they received last year, with a few exceptions. Senate Bill 241 breaks down to include approximately $26.6 million for senior centers, $20.4 million for community agencies and nonprofits, nearly $7 million for local fire companies, and $354,318 for veterans organizations, according to Joint Finance Committee co-chairman Sen. Harris McDowell.

Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker (R-Ocean View) said he hasn't had sufficient time to review the Grant-in-Aid or bond bills and announced his intention to not vote on either measure.

"I have not had a chance to read either one of these two money bills. I looked late last night, and I looked early this morning, they were not on the internet; they were not on the email...therefore, for the respect of the Republican Senate Caucus, who I understand, hardly any have seen these bills, I will go not voting," he said.

Hocker noted the bill didn't show up in his email until 2:34 p.m. The state Senate convened at 3:30 p.m.

"As important as these two bills are, it's not fair to our constituents to vote on something that we haven't even looked at it," said Hocker.

Senator Bryan Townsend (D-Newark) said members of his caucus on JFC briefed him and other Democrats, plus he tuned into virtual sessions.

"Although we're in a tough time-frame, we're also in a very challenging world, and I appreciate all the various forms in which we were able to have the kind of input that leads me to a position to feel like I've been able to review this bill and cast a vote," Townsend said.

Sen. McDowell noted epilogue language, in the bill, that create two task forces--one to study the inequities of socio-economically marginalized African-American communities relating to education, health care, housing, business, and economic development, community empowerment, environmental justice, community violence, and criminal justice. A second task force will study and make recommendations to the General Assembly and law enforcement agency regarding the use of force, community policing, and engagement, transparency, and accountability in policing.

Senator Dave Lawson (R-Marydel), who's on the JFC committee that drafted the Grant-in-Aid bill, also announced his intention to abstain from voting.  

"We can take time some; we have time; we voted on these things at 0-dark-30 before, on the 1st of July, so I'd like to have some time for the caucus to be able to look over them and ask questions."

Senators Pettyjohn and Delcollo also expressed a need for more time to review the bill.  

Senator Harris McDowell, said due to his heavy involvement in both the bond and Grant-in-Aid bills, he's uncertain how much time anyone had to review it.

"I find myself in a bit of a difficult position in that I have been the parts of these two pieces of legislation...the bond bill and the Grant-in-Aid for quite some time, as we've worked on it; it's been a work in progress for quite awhile, so I just don't have any sense on the timing of when it's been available...I don't know any way to move except for forward and ask for the roll," said McDowell. 

After failing to achieve a three-fourths super-majority, the Grant-in-Aid bill was defeated in a vote 12 "yes" and nine not voting.

"I believe the Grant-in-Aid bill is dead," said Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride.

Because not a single lawmaker voted "no" on the bill, it can't be called back for reconsideration; it must instead be redrafted under a different number and reintroduced. 

The Bond Bill

The $708 million bond bill includes $166.2 million for K-12 school construction, $3 million for deferred maintenance and campus improvements at higher education institutions, more than $49 million in maintenance for state buildings and state parks as well as upgrades to the veterans homes, $5 million each for open space and farmland preservation, and $10 million for clean drinking water.

"The bond bill is a crucial component of how the state spends its money on improvements, renovations, and new construction, and although this ha been an especially difficult year of budgeting, this year's bond bill will still maintain our commitments to fund new school construction in all three counties, pay for long overdue maintenance at our college campuses, preserve acres of pristine farmland and open space, fund clean water improvement projects and undertake significant economic development projects," said Sen. Dave Sokola (D-Newark), co-chairman of the Bond Bill Committee.

It, too, failed in a similar vote, 13 yes, 1 no, and 7 not voting, after several Republican lawmakers expressed similar concerns voiced during the Grant-in-Aid debate.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore admonished her fellow colleagues for their failure to pass these key spending measures with just two scheduled legislative days remaining.

"Delaware needs us to show up--not to vote a bill down that will absolutely protect the health of Delawareans, including the most vulnerable people that are among us, that depend on us to provide the services through this legislation. Without a doubt to see this happen today is completely wrong...at a time when one in six Delawareans are without a job, our colleagues in our minority caucus are refusing to support a $700 million job bill that will put thousands of our neighbors back to work, buildings schools, taking on our roads, and countless infrastructure projects."

"You gave up $160 million for school construction...$49 million in improvements at state parks, also our Delaware veterans home, $19 million in economic development projects, $13 million in emergency housing that we needed even before the pandemic, $10 million worth of projects to provide clean, safe drinking water; $10 million worth of farmland and open space preservation--we technically didn't need the confirmation today if we weren't going to do this; $8 million for first responders, $8 million for nonprofits in all three of our county's, $7 million to our fire companies that save the lives...of our constituents. $4 million in correctional facilities, $2.4 million for our National Guard, and don't let me forget the biggest crisis outside the pandemic--our opioid epidemic at $1.2 million.

"Every single person in this General Assembly swore an oath to make sure that we always place the public's interest above any of our special or personal interests. Holding up the funding for volunteer firefighters, our veterans, and also our farmers is in no one's best interest. Denying funding to our schools and our senior centers does not serve our families and our neighbors. Shutting down the legislative process at this exact moment that we are talked to respond to a pandemic, a recession, and nationwide protest all at once will harm every single person in this stat.e We cannot, absolutely, cannot afford this cynical partisanship and the DC-style politics, not now."

Following her rant, several Republican senators chimed in noting they didn't vote "no" on the bills--they abstained from voting to have more time for lawmakers and the public to review them.

"Am I going to support these bills? Absolutely...but I have to make sure the public is able to see it," said Pettyjohn. "Do I support our grant in aid, our fire companies, our senior centers, everything that's in here? Absolutely! And to say that I don't support them is an outright lie....the public has to be a part of the conversation; the public has to be able to look at the final product before we vote on it."

Sen. Anthony Delcollo noted there's adequate time to review these bills left in the legislative session.

"We do have ample time, considering the unfortunate tradition that this body has maintained...of voting on these pivotal measures at the very 11th hour of the business that we conduct. There is adequate time, and it is within our full authority--even if we had to--to add legislative days--I don't believe that will be necessary because I fully intend on supporting these measures once I've had adequate opportunity and once my constituents have an adequate opportunity to review their contents."

Townsend called for the bills to be advanced in the coming days, and in the future, for caucuses to ensure that members who are on the bond committee and JFC communicate with non-members.

"Delawareans are expecting us to be able to adapt, for us to be dynamic in a world...that continues to change so quickly. So what surprised me a little bit that there are senators who act like or said that the only availability to them of these bills and their contents was earlier this afternoon. That wasn't my experience as a member of bond bill; that wasn't my experience as someone who wasn't even on JFC, but heard from my colleagues," he said. "I also think that the access to these committee meetings was historically open for people who are able to use technology platforms to be able to tune in, in ways that they actually hadn't been able to do before, so I think that in many ways it was actually even more transparent."

Senator Dave Lawson demanded an apology from Poore.

"To try to shame us into saying that 'oh the veterans, and the fire companies,' like they're going to get the money tomorrow is not right. The shaming tactic, the degrading of the other side of the aisle is uncalled for and absolutely shameful, and we support all of those things, and to say that, to try that game is absolutely wrong, and I think we are owed an apology from Senator Poore for her behavior."

The state Senate is expected to try again on both spending measures Thursday. Both bills then have to be passed in the House before June 30.