Delaware Public Media

Legislature works in the "sunshine" this time

Jul 1, 2010

Typically the final days of Delaware's two-year legislative session involve frantic, often secretive dealings to push through a budget and other bills.

The endgame of the 145th General Assembly was different, even historic in some ways.

While the usual mad signing scramble took place in the final hours of the mandatory June 30 budget completion deadline—and slid into the early hours of July 1, as is customary—the process was in many ways less harried and more transparent.

Numerous factors converged to smooth the path to legislators' summer vacation, including leadership decisions, a lucky break on revenues, last year's open-government laws, and the need to avoid controversial issues during an election year.

The budget bill was actually voted on in the state Senate a day before the final day of the session.

Unlike last June, when legislators were trying to bridge an $800 million budget deficit, the gap this year was not as daunting.

“This year we had a revenue shortfall, but compared to last year, its very small,” said Representative Richard Cathcart (R-Middletown).

Gone was the often-heard chorus of complaints from legislators about not having time to read and consider the budget. The final state revenue projections from the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council (DEFAC), on which the budget is based, were delivered earlier this time. That allowed the operating budget to be introduced a week before the session ended.

House Speaker Robert Gilligan (D-Sherwood Park), a member of DEFAC, pushed for its final meeting to be held on June 17, allowing the numbers to be delivered four days earlier than in the past.

“It makes a huge difference,” said Senator Karen Peterson (D-Stanton). “It’s impossible to read these things at the last minute and even begin to comprehend what’s in them.”

Peterson says she had about 25 questions to ask officials from the Office of Management and Budget after reading the budget.

Even those who voted against the budget on its merits couldn't complain about their opportunity to digest it before voting.

"That's a great first step, that we got the budget early enough to review it," said Senator Colin Bonini (R-Dover South).

The budget process also was more open this year. Under open-government legislation passed last session, the entire process, including Joint Finance Committee (JFC) meetings, were open to the public and media. Sen. Peterson was among those who spearheaded the push for the legislation that opened the process, and she believes the result speaks for themselves.

"It was not nearly as problematic as some of the [JFC] members thought it might be,” Sen. Peterson said. “It went well. It went quickly.”

Representative J.J. Johnson (D-Wilmington), a JFC member, concurred.

“The process worked well. The public had an opportunity to see how much we had to go through to get a budget,” said Rep. Johnson. “And it showed we didn’t have anything to hide.”

"This year's process shows how far we've come with more sunshine," said James Browning, spokesperson for Common Cause Delaware. "Having it scrutinized every step of the way is really proof that sunshine works."

Making the process open for viewing doesn't necessarily mean it's open to participation, however.

"You would definitely distinguish between access vs. actual input," said Browning. "Whether its the public or rank-and-file members of the legislature having input on the budget, there's a long way to go."

"It's a step toward that," Flaherty said. "Obviously, if you don't know what's going on, you don't know what kind of input is going to be meaningful."

DelCOG and Common Cause Delaware would like to see the legislature take additional steps toward transparency.

"There's a lot the public still doesn't know about—for example, lobbying expenditures," said Browning. "The state's lobbying law could really be beefed up so lobbyists have to report exactly what they're working on and how much they're being paid. It's pretty weak right now, compared to the Maryland lobbying law."

"Certainly broadcasting our sessions like Wilmington City Council does, broadcasting the committee hearings would be a good step," Flaherty said. "Not everyone is able to get down here for these committee hearings."

Champions of open government in Delaware agreed.

"Remarkable change," said John Flaherty, president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government (DelCOG). "The public is now able to sit there at the Bond Bill hearings and at the Joint Finance Committee hearings and see how our government spends our money. Prior to the enactment of the [Freedom of Information Act] to the General Assembly, you were kicked out."

Missing from this year's budget process was a signature element: the so-called Big Head Committee, which in past years brought together members of each party’s leadership to hash out issues—and engage in some private horse trading.

Cathcart can't remember a time in the last 17 years that the Big Head Committee did not meet. He regrets its demise this year.

“Each chamber in each house should have an opportunity to participate in giving opinions on how we resolve the budget shortfalls,” Cathcart said. “The nice thing about the financial leadership or Big Head Committee is that there are four Republicans and four Democrats on that committee, so it’s a balanced committee."

Senator Peterson doesn’t miss the Big Head committee at all.

“The Big Head committee was never an official committee. It was just an ad hoc group that would put their heads together and, in some cases, hammer out deals that the rest of us were not a party to,” she said. “We have equal votes here, and to some extent the Big Head committee took that away. The leadership now has to come back to the caucuses and say, 'Here’s the proposal: Are you for it or against it?' Collectively. Not just a handful of people making decisions.”

This year's decisions focused more on the short term rather than the long term, in part because the additional revenue forecasted by DEFAC consisted mainly of one-time money.

In January Gov. Markell advocated tackling some long-term issues, such as reining in the cost of state employee benefits and school transportation, eliminating some county row offices, and doing away with the state Parole Board.

In the end, many of those ideas were left for another day. (See More nibbles than bites to curb spending.)

Responding to questions about the General Assembly's action—and inaction—on his legislative priorities, Markell said, “I’m sure when we come back next year, we’ll have some additional proposals, maybe some of the same. We’re going to take a hard look over the next several months and say, very single day, 'How can we make Delaware better, more efficient, and more effective than the day before?' ”

Freshman Senator Brian Bushweller (D-Central Kent) admits taking the long view is not easy.

“It’s very easy to forget about the future when you have all kinds of people arguing to protect what they have now—and all of those arguments amount to a lot of spending," Sen. Bushweller said. "To be able to step back from that and say, 'These are good ideas people have right now, but we also have the future to worry about; we need to be setting aside money for the future,' I think only make sense. But it can be tough.”

The fact that the entire House and half the Senate is up for reelection plays a role in how it all plays out, Rep. Johnson said.

"We have to be honest—the election year does have a lot to do with the decisions we make," Johnson said. "It's an election year, yeah."