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Lawmakers blow past budget deadline, special session imminent

Delaware Public Media

Delaware lawmakers are entering into uncharted territory – funding government operations for another three days as they try to find common ground on a budget that’s so far eluded them.

House Democrats agreed to the proposal behind closed doors shortly before 4 a.m., emerging from their inner offices looking frustrated and tired.

They’ll all return Sunday, though it’s unclear if they’ve moved any closer to any kind of compromise with Republicans during a marathon, 12-hour session Friday afternoon into Saturday morning.

Acrimonious feelings may linger over the course of the weekend, with neither side giving ground.

“Government failed the state of Delaware today,” said Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle (R-Sharpley) “Delaware’s government is broken and you saw it tonight why.”

House Minority Leader Danny Short (R-Seaford) says he’s willing to put in the work, even though he seems slightly skeptical.

“We’ll give it our best shot. I’m not sure, truly, what will change between now and then, but it’s my hope that something will and that we can reach that conclusion,” Short said.

In a statement, Senate Pro Tem David McBride (D-New Castle) said, “It became clear to me and other members of leadership that despite the progress made today, we were not yet in a position to deliver on our promise of a fair budget at this late hour.

Budget talks among legislative leaders collapsed in recent days, with the Democratically-controlled Joint Finance Committee choosing to cut off $46 million in grants traditionally destined for nonprofits, volunteer fire companies, senior centers, and other organizations to produce a balanced spending plan, as required by law by June 30th.

Disclosure: Delaware First Media Corporation, the parent company of Delaware Public Media, received $90,000 from the grants-in-aid budget during the current fiscal year.

“It’s just very, very disappointing that we have people in the building that won’t do what’s best for our state, what’s best to continue the services to the people that need them,” said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach).

GOP lawmakers have said they’d go along with some versions of a personal income tax hike under certain conditions, but Democrats have refused to give in on making changes to the state’s prevailing wage system.

Republicans offered up a way to restore cuts made to grants-in-aid – albeit with a 20 percent reduction across the board.

The $36.4 million would come from fully adopting cuts to public worker health benefits, trimming travel expenses for the General Assembly and taking $8 million from a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative account intended to go toward green energy projects.

Chances of the General Assembly passing any kind of personal income tax hike to deliver a balanced 2018 budget were dealt a severe blow as the House rejected such a plan after midnight Saturday.

Rep. Andria Bennett (D-Dover) was the lone no vote from a Democratic caucus that could have signed off on the measure without help from Republicans.

Bennett’s fellow lawmakers tried to convince her to support the plan over the past several days to no avail.

She says she couldn’t accept a provision in the bill that capped itemized deductions.

“Is everybody upset with me? Absolutely. Am I the only Democrat [that voted against the bill]? Absolutely. But what am I going to do? They don’t put me here,” Bennett said during a tearful interview.

“I have a whole damn building that’s disappointed right now,” Schwartzkopf said.

Gov. John Carney (D) and other Democrats had been banking on raking in tens of millions of dollars next year from boosting the personal income tax.

Carney crisscrossed the state all spring, pitching his proposed budget boasting an even mix of spending cuts and tax hikes at 20 town halls.

There’s little appetite on either side to pass the proposed operating budget sitting in the House.

Many lawmakers have trouble stomaching the $4.1 billion spending plan – especially over cuts made to education and healthcare programs - in addition to completely cutting grant-in-aid spending.

It’s yet to come up for a vote.

Carney said he’s disappointed, but return in just a few hours.

“We’re going to go get a little sleep, get right back at it and get it done.”

The General Assembly reconvenes Sunday at 1 p.m.

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