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Delaware Republicans stall quick passage of budget bills

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Senate Republicans in Delaware have held up two key spending bills for the fiscal year starting July 1, complaining that they and their constituents have not had enough time to consider them.

Members of the GOP minority declined Tuesday to vote for or against the measures, which were declared defeated after failing to attain the required three-fourths majorities.

Conversely, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a $4.5 billion operating budget for fiscal 2021 after coronavirus-weakened revenues forced a legislative panel to pare down a $4.6 billion spending plan proposed by Democratic Gov. John Carney in January.

The operating budget was approved on 20-to-1 vote Tuesday and now goes to the House. Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, who frequently rails against bloated government, cast his perennial dissenting vote on the budget bill.

Unlike the capital budget for construction and transportation projects, and a grants package for community organizations, the operating budget requires only a simple majority vote in the House and Senate.

The 91-page, $708 million capital budget was not introduced in the Senate until Monday, although a legislative committee had finished drafting it last Thursday. The $55 million package of grants for nonprofit groups, community organizations and volunteer fire companies was introduced only hours before Tuesday's virtual Senate session.

The House and Senate have not met in person since late January, and Legislative Hall has been closed to the public since mid-March because of the coronavirus.

"Our concern is making sure the public has the opportunity to look at the final finished product of what we're voting on," said Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown.

"I've been getting feedback the entire time that we've been in session today about bills, about questions on these bills," he added.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, wasn't buying the Republican arguments, chastising GOP lawmakers for not passing the measures and accusing them of "cynical partisanship."

"To see this happen today is completely wrong," she said.

Republicans responded forcefully to Poore's remarks, with Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, suggesting that she should apologize. She did not.

The grants package is typically a non-controversial bill, but this year's 50-page measure includes language inserted at the last minute that establishes 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" would be charged with studying issues including use of force, community policing, transparency in investigating alleged police misconduct, and increasing diversity within police departments. The "African American Task Force" would be charged with addressing "conditions that highlight the inequities within socioeconomically marginalized African American communities" in Delaware.

GOP lawmakers suggested that they were caught off-guard by the provisions inserted into the grants bill and needed more time to consider them and talk to interested parties.

"I'd like to have some time for the caucus to be able to look over them and have questions" said Lawson, a retired state trooper.

Majority Democrats preserved the option to resurrect the capital budget for another vote later this week or next week when Majority Whip Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, switched his vote from "yes" to "no." Under Senate rules, a lawmaker on the prevailing side of a vote can move to reconsider the vote within three legislative days.

Because no such maneuver was used on the grants bill, it must be reprinted with a new bill number before another vote can be taken.

The proposed capital budget is far smaller than the record $893 million Carney had proposed in January. It includes $363.5 million for transportation projects and $344 million for construction, maintenance, technology upgrades, environmental projects and economic development. Lawmakers also managed to squeeze in $5 million each for farmland and open space preservation, which had been slated to be zeroed out before recent improvements in the state's revenue estimates.

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