DOVER — Minutes before midnight, after months of debate, legislators passed a bill that will raise millions of dollars for road and bridge projects, one step toward restoring the state’s much-maligned highways and byways after more than a year of failed lobbying efforts.
The 15-6 vote, coming days after a failed 11-10 effort, let state officials breathe a sigh of relief — at motorists’ expense.
With the bill’s passage, the dominoes quickly fell into place for other legislation Wednesday morning.
In the end, after six months of negotiations, all it took was the pressure of time to compel legislators to agree to a deal.
House Bill 140 will increase 14 Division of Motor Vehicles fees, mostly those associated with late renewals, revocation of license suspensions and requests for duplicate documents. It is expected to take in an extra $24 million annually, to be used, officials say, to fix bridges and restore both funding for city road projects and money that goes directly to lawmakers to be allocated in their districts.
Most of the fees, officials stress, have not been touched in more than 20 years. The changes go into effect in October.
Department of Transportation officials had warned the state would forgo work on about $780 million worth of projects over the next six years if no additional revenue was forthcoming.
Business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce had backed the legislation, which supporters argue will improve both public safety and the economy.
The new money will “help fix our roads and bridges, promote economic development and create good construction jobs,” Gov. Jack Markell said in a statement.
He signed the bill into law at about 5:30 a.m. Wednesday.
In return for Republican support, Democrats introduced legislation to revamp the state’s prevailing wage laws, which govern wages paid to laborers on state-funded projects.
A substitute bill filed to replace House Bill 145 increases the level at which prevailing wage takes application, upping it from $15,000 to $45,000 for renovations and from $100,000 to $500,000 for new projects. The bill will save the state money by requiring agencies to pay less money for salaries on construction projects that fall below the new higher levels.
The bill passed both chambers unanimously with no debate early Wednesday morning.
“It has been a moving ball for six months, and the ball finally got nailed down an hour ago,” Speaker of the House Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said on the House floor around 12:30.
Two bills filed by Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, and quickly passed place limitations on how the state uses the Transportation Trust Fund. The so-called lockbox bills require a three-fourths vote for the General Assembly to use the fund for any non-transportation-related purpose. Under the purview of the legislation, the state also is unable to use the money raised by the DMV bill to pay for DelDOT’s operating expenses.
With Democrats no longer holding the three-fifths supermajority needed to force legislation through without minority support, Republicans had leverage for a vote in the Senate. They took advantage of it, refusing to cave until the final hours, when both sides hammered out a compromise.
Republicans got the changes in prevailing wage laws they wanted, as well as a shift in funds for DelDOT’s operating budget from the Transportation Trust Fund to the General Fund.
Democratic lawmakers filed House Bill 140 in May after talks with the minority broke down. Despite continued negotiations between the parties, the legislation passed the House on straight party lines that month.
Frustrated Democrats had lashed out at members of the minority in recent weeks, accusing them of not caring about the state. But even as top lawmakers publicly bashed other legislators, negotiations were continuing.
Legislators had said for weeks they were close to a deal, but a vote on the bill Thursday failed, as Senate Democrats were unable to convince any of their counterparts across the aisle to sign on.
Gov. Markell said in an interview with reporters Wednesday morning that as recently as Monday, he had doubts about whether or not the infrastructure proposal would pass.
Finally, on Tuesday night, lawmakers reached a compromise.
“A deadline itself can either be good or bad, so you can push off to the deadline for negative reasons or for positive reasons, and I think the time allotted is what the task often takes,” Sen. Lavelle said Wednesday morning. He hashed out some of the details with Gov. Markell, a Democrat, on a Lewes bike ride over the weekend.
Officials plan to borrow $24 million on top of the equal sum raised through the DMV bill.
Pleased with the deal, Gov. Markell praised legislators for coming together, even though it took literally half a year.
“The ownership that Democrats and Republicans alike took of this process, they wanted to get something done and there were a lot of issues that they had to work through,” he said.