Delaware legislative session by the numbers

Matt Bittle
Posted 7/25/15

DOVER — And the award for busiest legislator of 2015 goes to... Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark. At least by one measure, Sen. Townsend was more active than any other lawmaker during the course of …

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Delaware legislative session by the numbers


DOVER — And the award for busiest legislator of 2015 goes to... Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark.

At least by one measure, Sen. Townsend was more active than any other lawmaker during the course of session.

In the 44 legislative days stretching from the middle of January to the early hours of July 1, he introduced 23 pieces of legislation, including both bills and resolutions.

This is just the second session for Sen. Townsend, who introduced eight bills in 2013 and has clearly found his footing now.

The high number of bills could also be an indication he is thinking about his political future — the senator has been26dsn lawmakers frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for the U.S. House of representatives in 2016.

A tally shows that 522 Senate and House bills and resolutions were filed in the 148th General Assembly’s first leg, with individual lawmakers directly introducing anywhere from 0 to 23 pieces themselves.

Admittedly, that’s far from the only measure that can be used to study the past session. To avoid having to individually go through every item filed with the General Assembly over the past months, only primary sponsors were counted.

For instance, Senate Bill 40, a controversial proposal to repeal the death penalty and spare the lives of convicted killers, has 24 sponsors but Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, the main backer, was the lone official given credit for the bill in the count.

Stricken items and substitute bills were also counted, so House Bill 171, House Substitute 1 for House Bill 171 and House Substitute 2 for House Bill 171 are recorded as three separate items.

While Sen. Townsend was the primary sponsor on the most legislation, a few lawmakers came close. All of them are Democrats.

Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, and Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, D-Middletown, each proposed 20 items. Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, introduced 19 bills, and Sens. David Sokola, D-Newark, and Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, filed 18 items apiece.

On the flip side, eight lawmakers filed two bills apiece, while two were responsible for only one item. None of them, however get the dubious honor of introducing the least legislation. That title would belong to Rep. Jack Peterman, R-Milford, who admittedly has somewhat of an excuse — he missed several weeks due to shoulder and back injuries.

Not all bills are created equal, nor is a low number of bills filed an indication of a lack of work. For instance, Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, was behind just four bills, but two of them, filed shortly after June 30 rolled into July 1 and dealing with the Department of Transportation’s infrastructure trust fund, were passed as necessary conditions of an infrastructure compromise between Republicans and Democrats.

Another proposal from Sen. Lavelle would have allowed the Delaware Economic Development Office to create right-to-work zones, which limit unions. The controversial bill failed to get out of committee, although Republicans continued to push right-to-work.

Additionally, as the Senate minority whip, Sen. Lavelle spent a great deal of time over the course of the session working to keep the other Republican senators in line and meeting with the three separate caucuses to discuss infrastructure plans.

In 2013, the most recent start of the two-year session, 498 items were filed by July 1, a slight decrease from the large number of bills and resolutions that were placed into the system this year.

A total of 83 bills had been signed into law as of July 1. In 2013, Gov. Jack Markell signed 82 bills in that timespan.

A number of resolutions took effect without the governor’s approval, as his signature is not needed for concurrent resolutions, which are used simply to honor organizations or anniversaries.

Legislation was signed in spurts, depending on the level of activity in the General Assembly, as well as the complexity of the proposal and the free space on the governor’s schedule. Just six items were signed in January, February and March. For comparison’s sake, 22 bills and resolutions were approved by Gov. Markell on July 15 alone.

Key bills

Both social and fiscal issues took center stage throughout the session, although the specter of the budget and infrastructure funding hung over lawmakers’ heads for months.

Some of the most notable legislation includes bills on marijuana, capital punishment, standardized testing, infrastructure, bail reform and gun control.

Arguably the most controversial bill of the year, House Bill 50 would have allowed parents to opt their students out of the Smarter Balanced assessment. An amendment later expanded opt-out to all district- and statewide tests.

Supporters said it clarified an existing right and would prevent students from having to take what they see as unnecessary and overly complex tests.

Opponents, chiefly members of the executive branch, argued that the test helps the state measure students and teachers, and Delaware risked losing federal funding if a sufficient number of students chose not to take Smarter Balanced.

Following months of debate, the bill passed the General Assembly in late June after a process that saw it go through both chambers twice and fail once before a recall vote brought it back.

The vocal supporters behind the opt-out movement were dismayed and outraged when Gov. Markell vetoed it earlier this month, making the bill one of just 14 proposals to be killed by the governor in his six-and-a-half years in office. He has vetoed just two bills since August 2012.

Lawmakers can pick the bill up and override a veto with a three-fifths supermajority.

If that was the most hotly debated item from 2015, the death penalty repeal bill is a very close second. As it did in 2013, the bill passed the Senate before stalling in a House committee.

Repeal advocates will now have six months to try to change the minds of the committee members who opposed the bill. Just one switch from no to yes would send the legislation to the House floor.

At the same time, the bill’s main House backer Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, said in May he was trying to gain the necessary 21 votes of support to suspend the rules and move the repeal bill to the chamber at large.

Gov. Markell in May came out in support of repealing the death penalty for convicted murderers in Delaware. The bill has 16 House co-sponsors, meaning supporters would only need to pick up five votes in the House at large to eliminate capital punishment in the state.

Other contentious legislation involved bills to remove the criminal penalties for possession of a small quantity of marijuana, crack down on gun control for individuals accused of domestic violence and allow judges to deny accused criminals bail for certain violent crimes.

The marijuana decriminalization bill passed the Legislature on party lines, with a complex amendment attached. It was signed into law and will go into effect on Dec. 18.

A proposal to tighten the restrictions on protection-from-abuse-order recipients by slightly changing the law, which requires firearms be handed over to police, was predictably met with opposition from gun-rights groups and Republican legislators. The bill expanded the definition of “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” and tasked law enforcement with additional duties, something police objected to.

In the wake of opposition, activists from both sides hashed out a compromise, and the bill passed.

Bail reform, which passed in 2014 as the first step of a two-leg constitutional amendment process, was defeated this time around. The proposal was the brainchild of former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who died in May, but even his memory was not enough to pass the bill in the face of concerns from a number of lawmakers and activists.

Money was also a primary issue for members of the General Assembly, who had to balance the budget in the face of a shortfall while also seeking to raise money for road and bridge projects.

After six months of closed-door negotiations, Republicans and Democrats were able to reach a compromise in regard to infrastructure, raising 14 Division of Motor Vehicles fees — a Democratic idea — while also increasing the prevailing wage threshold, as advocated for by members of the GOP.

The higher costs begin in October and are expected to bring in $24 million annually. The extra money allows DelDOT to do additional paving projects and fund projects that otherwise would not have been supported.

The budget passed early July 1, although the vote revealed a possible schism in the House Democratic caucus. Six lawmakers, coming from the caucus’ progressive wing, voted no on the budget due to cuts to a program that helped indigent Delawareans. They also objected to the Legislature’s inability to approve any tax increases on corporations or the wealthy.

The session resumes in January, picking up as the second leg of the 148th General Assembly. There is a lot remaining on the table: capital punishment, opt-out, bail reform and of course, money.

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