DOVER — A veto override attempt by a group of lawmakers failed Thursday, the first veto override try since 1977. Legislators, led by Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, sought to pass a testing opt-out bill over Gov. Jack Markell’s July veto but were unsuccessful after a motion failed to gain the necessary votes.
House Bill 50 would codify parents’ rights to opt their children out of standardized tests, specifically the Smarter Balanced Assessment. It passed both chambers — twice — last spring after highly contentious debate but was rejected by the governor over concerns it would jeopardize federal funding, remove a tool used by the state to measure students’ and teachers’ progress and marginalize low-income families.
Supporters held a rally Thursday at Legislative Hall an hour before the vote, but the best efforts of vocal backers were not enough.
A motion to suspend the rules, which would have allowed the vetoed bill to be brought directly to the floor and voted on, failed to garner the needed 25 votes, collecting only 13. Suspense hung in the air after Rep. Kowalko rose to request a motion, particularly when a technical glitch caused the chief clerk to have to delay for a few seconds before calling roll.
The bill could still be passed again, but it will have to go through the normal legislative process rather than being fast-tracked. Whether it is brought to the floor in the future is up to Speaker of the House Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach.
After the vote, an emotional Rep. Kowalko said while he was not particularly surprised, he was “incredibly, incredibly disappointed” over the “inexplicable” number of votes against the motion.
“To not let it come to the floor for a vote, for a dialogue, for a discussion, I can’t see any other way to describe it other than, well, I won’t describe it because it’s not my place to describe it. My constituents, their constituents should describe it to them what they feel about that,” he said.
He took particular issue with the fact the vote that fell short was not a vote on the bill’s merits but on bringing the proposal to the floor through an atypical procedure.
Supporters say the bill is about parents’ rights and protects students. Jill Shilling, who had children in the Appoquinimink School District before removing them, said at the rally she was subject to “intimidation and threat” after opting her kids out.
“We know what works for our kids, our teachers know what works for our kids. Let’s let them do their jobs,” Dr. Terri Hodges, president of the Delaware Parent Teacher Association, said at the gathering.
Rep. Deborah Hudson, R-Hockessin, said on the floor she felt the bill was “stale” and too much time had been spent debating it.
Expressing anger, Rep. Kowalko afterward dismissed lawmakers’ reasons for voting no as “excuses” and said he has seen little evidence people are against opt-out itself.
Rep. Hudson disagreed with his assessment.
“The way I looked at it is if we want to get something done for parents and kids on the opt out, start all over again. It’s 2016. Move ahead,” she said afterward.
“Some of what was in that bill to me is just old, and I just thought it was a political game between (the speaker) and Kowalko and the governor. Stop. I mean, it hasn’t been done in 40 years, obviously it’s not a professional thing to do.”
In a statement, Gov. Markell also reiterated his opposition to the bill.
“I continue to believe that we must have an objective way to know whether our children are learning and how much our schools are improving, but we must also maximize time for our students to learn. I believe that a more productive approach to reducing testing than HB 50 is to review all required assessments and eliminate those that are unnecessary, ineffective, or redundant. That is why the General Assembly, along with my administration, is supporting the Assessment Inventory, and why we recently announced that we would no longer administer the Smarter Balanced Assessment in the 11th grade in favor of the SAT that our juniors already take.”
Two proposals introduced by Republican representatives Thursday would serve many of the same purposes as the vetoed bill. The legislation, one bill and one resolution, would seek to create a consistent policy statewide to ensure parents are aware they can opt their children out, prevent any sort of punishment for those that do and ensure the state cannot strip funding from a school or district if a sizable portion of students choose not to take the Smarter Balanced test.
and slavery apology
While the planned override attempt grabbed much of the attention in the days leading up to Thursday, the House also dealt with several other pieces of legislation.
Representatives passed a bill altering the state’s corporate income tax in an effort to create more jobs and encourage companies to invest in the state.
House Bill 235 would change the state’s corporate income tax, currently based on a company’s total sales, payroll and property holdings in Delaware relative to its nationwide business operations. Under the auspices of the bill, the tax would be determined by the percentage of sales in Delaware.
It’s been very quick progress for the proposal so far. Introduced Jan. 8 with support from all four caucuses, the governor and the business community, the bill has already passed one chamber and now goes to a Senate committee.
The House approved it by a 38-2 vote. Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, and Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, were the lone opponents.
Rep. Kowalko repeatedly questioned the bill, which carries with a projected $49 million hit to state’s coffers over the next three years.
“The corporate extortion practice of pitting state against state has resulted in every state trying to outachieve, underachieve, outbid, underbid the other state and the taxpayers paying the bill for them,” he said.
But supporters say the state could lose more than the projected hit if the bill does not pass.
“If we’re not finding ways to keep businesses here and then to attract new businesses, that could be a bigger shortfall than we currently have before us,” main sponsor Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, said.
She led a motion to suspend the rules to bring the bill to the floor Thursday rather than next week, done to get it through both chambers by the time the governor unveils his recommended budget Jan. 28.
The legislation passed after some debate.
Immediately before that, the full House passed a resolution apologizing for slavery one day after a committee unanimously approved it. By a 38-1 vote, with one not voting and one absent, the chamber sent the legislation on to the Senate.
Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, was the lone vote in opposition. He said on the floor he felt he could not apologize for something he was not involved in.
Afterward, lawmakers hailed the passage as historic and much-needed, and some called for people to keep fighting modern-day slavery and human trafficking.
“I hope that by joining together we can make a statement to the entire state that what we’ve done in the past is wrong and we’ve got to make sure we do the right things in the future,” said Rep. Tim Dukes, R-Laurel. “There’s a lot of things we can look at that have racially divided us.”