New legislator actually finds some bipartisan cooperation

October 8, 2013

Not long ago, I spoke to a legislator who was disappointed with the partisanship in the Delaware General Assembly.

I wasn’t surprised, since that seems to be the way of modern politics, both locally and nationally.

But more recently, I sat down with Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, who just wound up his first legislative session.

“I had a fantastic bipartisan experience,” Smyk said of his freshman year.

Wow. “Fantastic bipartisan experience” isn’t a phrase you hear every day.

“It was not about party issues,” he added.

You don’t hear that much either.

And finally: “The General Assembly works together for the benefit of the public.”

With that, Smyk hit the trifecta for unlikely comments to hear from legislators.

Smyk’s glasses looked dark, not rose-colored, so maybe he just has a sunny outlook. Another factor may be that the bills Smyk worked on related to law enforcement, where Smyk’s experience as a retired state trooper came into play. Anti-crime bills, such as the one he sponsored making it illegal to have secret compartments in vehicles, are also less likely to generate partisan bickering.

But he seemed to like his new job. “I really enjoy it,” he said. With the legislature out of session he’s dealing mostly with constituent services. “Every day is a cascade of emergencies,” he said. People need help with state government and sometimes it takes a legislator to get action.

His bipartisan experience included House Bill 28, which was aimed at meth labs. Smyk sponsored the bill in the House but reached across the aisle and asked Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, to sponsor the bill in the Senate.

It passed both houses and was signed Aug. 27 by Gov. Jack Markell.

Some issues, he said, are more of a matter of geography than party. One bill he’s working on would allow DUI first offenders to drive provided their cars are equipped with an ignition interlock system, which would require the driver to blow into a blood alcohol measuring device. (The technology has improved, he said; it’s no longer possible for another person to blow into it for the driver.)

In the northern part of the state, which is more densely populated and has more transportation options, this bill isn’t as important. But down south in Sussex, he said, if people can’t drive, they can’t get to their jobs. The bill still requires more work, but may be coming up.

This past session was often dominated by social issues, such as gun safety, the death penalty and marriage equality. Two weeks ago, I discussed Smyk’s efforts with gun safety; he voted against background checks, but for a bill designed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. (The first one passed and was signed; the second passed the House but lost in the Senate.)

The death penalty bill - which would have ended capital punishment in Delaware - passed the Senate, but didn’t come up for a vote in the House.

Smyk voted against the marriage equality bill, which passed both houses and was signed by the governor. Though he was on the losing side, he doesn’t see it as a problem for next year’s election. (And yes, he’s already decided to run again in 2014.)

According to Smyk, the messages that came into his office were 17 to one against the marriage equality bill. If those figures reflect voter opinion in District 20, the vote won’t hurt him.

“I’m just a representative,” he said. “I’m a public servant. I vote the way my constituents want. They elected me as their voice.”

The unusual prominence of social issues this past session, according to Smyk, resulted in less attention being paid elsewhere.

“What we lost out on was the economy,” he said.

(The idea that the state government spent too much time on social and not economic issues was a recurring theme of the questions asked at Gov. Jack Markell’s town meeting held last week at Cape Henlopen High School.)

But even there he saw some progress. With Markell’s support, legislators, including Smyk and Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, met with state agencies and business people to work on streamlining regulations.

“We were able to shed some of the repetitive and redundant policies,” he said.

These policies covered everything from curbing to permitting, which was “terrible,” Smyk said.

Often, he said, businesses had to receive a permit from one state agency before they were even allowed to apply for a second needed permit from another agency.

“There’s more to do but we had a very good, successful small business caucus,” Smyk said.

And that was another bipartisan effort. On the state level, at least, maybe there’s hope.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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