Legislative session gets underway in Delaware

By Randall Chase, Associated Press

DOVER — House and Senate members took their oaths, elected their respective leaders and took care of other housekeeping matters as this year’s legislative session got underway Tuesday.

The convening of the 149th session of the General Assembly comes exactly one week before the inauguration of Democratic Gov-elect John Carney.

“I encourage them to really give the new governor the benefit of the doubt…. I’m sure he’ll do a great job of reaching out to them,” said outgoing Gov. Jack Markell, who is finishing his second term and is barred by state law from seeking a third.

Markell also urged Democrats and Republicans to work in a spirit of bipartisanship to tackle the challenges facing the state.

Already, there appears to be a bipartisan consensus among lawmakers to reject a state panel’s recommendation of higher salaries and expense allowances for legislators, higher salaries for statewide officials except the governor, and pay raises for several cabinet posts.

Judges also would see their salaries increase, in some cases by more than $20,000 over four years, under the Delaware Compensation Commission’s recommendations. Under state law, the panel’s recommendations take effect automatically unless lawmakers vote them down in their entirety. A resolution to do so is expected to be introduced Wednesday.

“We are facing a large budget shortfall this coming year, and issuing raises to select state officials is absolutely the wrong thing to do at this time,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf said in a statement earlier this week.

Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, was re-elected as speaker by his colleagues Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Sen. David McBride, D-New Castle, was elected president pro tem of the Senate. McBride, who previously served as majority leader, replaces longtime state senator Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, who lost her seat to Republican newcomer Anthony Delcollo in November.

Delcollo’s victory over Blevins left Democrats with a razor-thin 11-10 majority in the Senate. Republicans could flip the balance and take control of the Senate for the first time in more than 40 years if they win a special election later this year to fill the seat being vacated next week by Democratic lieutenant governor-elect Bethany Hall-Long.

Budget-related issues are expected to drive this year’s legislative session. Based on the latest revenue projections, the current appropriation limit for fiscal 2018, which starts July 1, is $201.1 million, or 5.1 percent, less than this year’s general fund appropriation.

That means that simply to match this year’s general fund spending, without accounting for additional obligations for Medicaid, school enrollment growth and debt service next year, lawmakers would need to find $201 million more than what is currently available. State budget officials have suggested the real shortfall, compared to the current budget, is about $350 million.

Markell will present his final budget proposal before leaving office, but Carney is sure to tweak it.

Carney has called for a complete “budget reset” but has provided few details on how he will balance the budget for next year, other than not ruling out tax or fee increases.

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