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Delaware budget bills get Senate nod; lawmakers ban police chokeholds

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The Delaware state Senate on Thursday unanimously approved two key spending bills that failed to win passage earlier this week amid concerns by Republican lawmakers.

The Senate approved a $708 million capital budget for construction and transportation projects, and a $55 million package of grants for nonprofit groups, community organizations and volunteer fire companies.

GOP senators had declined to vote on the measures Tuesday, complaining that they and their constituents have not had enough time to consider them. The capital budget had not been introduced until Monday, and the grants bill was not introduced until just hours before Tuesday’s virtual Senate session. Both bills failed to win the required three-fourths majority.

But lawmakers agreed Thursday to approve both measures, which now go to the House.

The House and Senate have already approved a $4.5 billion operating budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. The fiscal 2021 spending plan is $73 million larger than the current operating budget approved last year, but $100 million less than what Democratic Gov. John Carney proposed in January. That was before the coronavirus restrictions he imposed on economic activity in Delaware led to sharp drops in revenue estimates, unprecedented unemployment filings and shuttered businesses.

Similarly, the proposed capital budget is far smaller than the record $893 million Carney proposed in January. It includes $363.5 million for transportation projects and $344 million for construction, maintenance, technology upgrades, environmental projects and economic development.

The grants package is typically a non-controversial bill, but GOP lawmakers had expressed concerns about this year’s version, which includes last-minute language establishing two task forces proposed by Democratic lawmakers in the wake of nationwide unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota.

The “Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force” is charged with addressing issues including use of force, community policing, transparency in investigating alleged police misconduct, and increasing diversity within police departments. The “African American Task Force” is charged with addressing “conditions that highlight the inequities within socioeconomically marginalized African American communities.”

The grants bill received universal approval Thursday, unlike a bill prohibiting police from using chokeholds unless they believe deadly force is warranted to protect the life of a civilian or law-enforcement officer. Any officer who violates the prohibition could be charged with the new felony crime of “aggravated strangulation.”

Some GOP lawmakers argued that Delaware does not have a problem with the type of police conduct involved in Floyd’s death. They also said the chokehold provision could jeopardize the ability of officers to protect themselves in dangerous situations without having to resort to lethal force. The bill now goes to Carney, having passed the House unanimously earlier Thursday.

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