DOVER, Del. (AP) — Democratic lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to strong-arm Republicans late Thursday as an impasse over a budget for the fiscal year starting Saturday continued to escalate.
Amid public criticism and partisan bickering over a decision by the Democratic-led budget committee to zero out spending for an annual package of grants to nonprofit groups, community agencies and volunteer fire companies, Democrats cobbled together a bill behind closed doors Thursday night to both restore that funding and increase personal income taxes to pay for it.
Bypassing the Joint Finance Committee, which is charged with writing the grant-in-aid budget, Democrats instead held a House appropriations committee meeting, which lasted only a few minutes.
When committee member Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Newark, asked for an hour to review the bill, chairwoman Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, who also co-chairs the finance committee, said there wasn’t time.
Republicans then walked out of the House chamber before Democrats suspended rules and voted on the bill, which failed without GOP support.
“This is the epitome of everything we should not be doing,” said House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, saying Democrats were trying to railroad the bill with no GOP input and without allowing members time to read it.
“We will not stand for this sham,” Short said before leading his caucus out of the chamber.
House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, said nothing the Democrats tried to do should have come as a surprise to Republicans.
“We have talked about these issues for five months…. We’re running out of time,” he said.
“We needed to put a message out because the people that receive services from grant-in-aid are really, really upset,” Schwartzkopf added. “They’re anxious, they don’t know what to expect from us.”
Short said volunteer fire companies, a powerful political constituency in Delaware that annually receives millions of dollars in grant funding, are urging Republicans to stand their ground.
“They understand that they’re being held hostage, and they don’t like it,” said Short, adding that Republicans will introduce their own grant-in-aid bill Friday, the final day of the session.
The late-night political maneuvering came after Republican lawmakers said earlier Thursday that they would be willing to go along with tax increases to balance next year’s budget if Democrats agreed to certain conditions.
Democratic Gov. John Carney quickly shot down the GOP proposal, calling it “unacceptable.”
Republicans said their support for an income tax increase is contingent on it being effective only for fiscal 2018, with any extension or adjustment requiring three-fifths votes in the House and Senate.
“I want a sustainable solution … You don’t have a one-year tax deal,” Carney said.
Carney said he did not support what was in the spending plan approved by the budget committee, but he did not say whether he would veto it should it pass the House and Senate.
Republicans also said their proposed compromise is contingent on lawmakers passing legislation mandating the implementation of new fiscal restraint and budget stabilization rules and reviews aimed at trimming health care and school district financing costs.
Republicans also are demanding changes to Delaware’s prevailing wage laws, saying the prevailing wage, set by the state Labor Department based on employer surveys — and often driven by union wages — needlessly drives up the cost of taxpayer-funded construction projects.
Democrats are defending the prevailing wage and say it has nothing to do with developing a spending plan for next year.
Democratic lawmakers also have blamed Republicans for forcing the budget committee to “inflict pain” on seniors, students, veterans and nonprofit groups by cutting grant funding, even though Democrats have an 8-4 majority on the budget committee.
Republicans, meanwhile, have accused Democrats of kowtowing to unions and trying to gain leverage in budget negotiations by threatening to eliminate the grant funding.