Reflecting on the 2017 session that was
The first half of the 149th General Assembly has been one of the most difficult legislative sessions I have experienced.
We started the year with a gap between projected state revenues and expenditures of approximately $400 million. That estimate improved somewhat as we approached the end of the fiscal year, but state lawmakers still faced a $364 million shortfall at the end of June.
It was a session marked by tragedy, with line-of-duty deaths of Correctional Officer Lt. Steven Floyd and Delaware State Police Cpl. Stephen J. Ballard.
And it was a session of polarizing partisanship, which continues even after General Assembly Republicans and Democrats were able to hammer out a compromise balanced budget.
In their e-newsletter published days after the new budget was signed into law, House Democrats continued to take shots at their Republican counterparts. One item begins with the flagrantly false statement: "During budget negotiations, House Democrats offered olive branches for every GOP demand, only to have them kicked aside."
I was part of those negotiations and the discussion always began with the Democrats' insistence on a personal income tax hike and eliminating filers' ability to make personal deductions. House and Senate Republicans would then cite our desire to allow local governments and school districts to bid construction projects the same way the private sector does - without the state's prevailing wage mandate, which has been proven to add a minimum of 20 percent to the cost of public works contracts. Because of their close political and monetary ties to organized labor, Democratic leaders would ignore any prevailing wage reform proposal, saying it was "a non-starter." Talks would end soon afterward.
In the same Democratic e-newsletter, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said the $400 million revenue shortfall "presented us with an opportunity ... to fix our structural problems with our budget."
For the Democratic leaders in the negotiating room, "structural change" - as they defined it - always started and ended with hiking the personal income tax and rewriting the code to eliminate the ability of taxpayers to deduct charitable contributions. Had Democrats had their way, that latter initiative would have hurt nearly every nonprofit organization in the state that relies on contributions to carry out their missions.
When negotiations failed to yield the tax hike they wanted, General Assembly Democrats resorted to sleazy tactics. Waiting until nearly midnight, House Democrats on June 29 introduced a Grants-in-Aid bill that included a personal income tax increase. The maneuver came just a day after House and Senate Democrats that control the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee chose to cut all funding for the annual Grants-in-Aid appropriation that provides state assistance to fire departments, senior centers, and dozens of nonprofit community service organizations.
The Democratic action - which brazenly violated House Rules and public disclosure law - was a ham-handed attempt to leverage Republican support for the tax hike by linking it to the needed nonprofit assistance. The move failed when Republican legislators refused to knuckle under to the pressure and left the floor.
Now that we have reached a hard-fought consensus, and enacted a $37.2 million Grants-in-Aid bill, Democrats have been quick to congratulate themselves for solving the crisis they created.
General Assembly Democrats did sponsor some reform measures at the end of the session, which they appropriated from ideas Republican legislative leaders shared with the public weeks earlier. House Joint Resolution 7 will establish a "health care spending benchmark" in an attempt to rein in the unsustainable escalation of these costs.
House Joint Resolution 8 will examine Delaware's budgeting practices, including the possible creation of a "sustainment fund" to level out year-to-year fluctuations in state revenue and break the state out of its recent "boom and crisis" spending cycle. House Concurrent Resolution 39 will explore consolidating Delaware's 19 public school districts.
The rancor of this year does not bode well for the second half of the 149th General Assembly in 2018. Controversial high-profile issues, including reinstating capital punishment and legalizing the use of recreational marijuana, remain in the legislative pipeline and await action. Other hot-button proposals in the Delaware Democratic Party platform - like increasing Delaware's minimum wage to $15 an hour (despite a recent study that found it had counterproductive results in Seattle) - will likely be introduced after the new year.
House and Senate Democrats will, no doubt, continue their polarizing political campaign against Republican state lawmakers, transparently attempting to set us up as targets of distraction and blame. In the end, Democratic state officeholders will still find it impossible to evade their responsibility.
Democrats control the governor's office, the House of Representatives (25 to 16), the Senate (11 to 10), and the Joint Finance Committee (8 to 4). Republican legislators have no ability to stop or amend any measure Democrats collectively wish to enact requiring a simple majority, which constitutes most of the bills filed in the Legislature.
We will work with our Democratic colleagues when they choose to enact rational policies that are in the best interests of all citizens, but we will be outspoken critics when they place their political interests ahead of the welfare of average Delawareans.
Danny Short is the Delaware House of Representatives Minority Leader.