Posted: Oct. 5, 9004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

There was as much stagecraft as statecraft going on as Gov. Jack Markell ceremoniously signed a bill into law.

It was Monday. It was October. When the Delaware General Assembly passed the bill, it was June.

As anyone who sat through civics class could remember, governors have 10 days (not counting Sundays) to sign or veto legislation or let it become law without a signature. This one sat for closer to 100 days.

Not even a strict constitutional constructionist has to be consulted to see a stretch here.

Naturally there is a loophole. The calendar does not start running until the legislature sends the bill to the governor, and the legislature can wait as long as it wants after it passes a bill. The state constitution does not put a time limit on it.

"There is no requirement as to when the legislature delivers the bill," said Greg Patterson, the legislative liaison for the Democratic governor.

If there is anything that legislators understand, it is loopholes. The upshot is a wink and a nod and a behind-the-scenes conspiracy. Part of it can be said to be in the interest of good government and common decency. A lot of it is in the interest of the politicians.

Scores and scores of bills are passed in June before the legislature leaves Dover for the year, and all of them must be reviewed by the governor's legal counsel. If they were sent in a batch, Markell would need to have more lawyers than David Letterman.

Instead, the bills are dribbled out. Patterson put the count at 147 for the number of bills signed since June -- "way too much work to try to do in a handful of days."

Besides, if the governor got the bills all at once, they would have to be signed so quickly that it could deprive the legislators who sponsored them of the opportunity to milk them for a bill-signing ceremony and impress the voters.

The legislature is known to move a bill fast, when it wants to. In typical fashion, the budget bill was rushed upstairs in Legislative Hall to the governor's office. That way a bunch of lawmakers could be there as Markell signed it in the early morning hours of July 1, during the traditional press conference at the end of the legislative session. Then everyone could go home to sleep.

The legislature can slow-walk a bill, too, like the one Markell signed Monday. It was House Bill 232, a modest measure to extend some legal protections to homeowners facing foreclosure.

This bill actually was doubly delayed. It was supposed to be signed in mid-September, but state Rep. Helene Keeley, a Wilmington Democrat who was the prime sponsor, had a scheduling conflict, so the signing ceremony was pushed back to October.

Keeley had her moment as Markell signed the bill in his Wilmington office.

"You know how it goes," she said.

The signing was postponed so long, it unexpectedly created a footnote in Delaware history. It allowed for the presence of Beau Biden, the Democratic attorney general newly back from Iraq with his National Guard unit.

When Biden left a year ago, Markell was still the treasurer. They were sharing their first public appearances together as governor and attorney general.

"It's my first time to get to see you sign a bill," Biden said.

Markell has one more bill to go from the 2009 legislative session. At a ceremony Tuesday in Dover, he will sign legislation creating Military Spouse Appreciation Day, to be observed Friday before Mother's Day.

This is no trifling ceremony. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Darryl Scott, a Dover Democrat. He is a freshman legislator, and he already has a Republican opponent -- Ron Poliquin, a lawyer remembered for running for treasurer as a law student in 2002 against Markell.

The House Democratic caucus did not hesitate. It immediately issued a press release for Scott. With the Air Force base in Dover, who knows how many military spouses will be voting in his race?

Markell gets to finish off his bill signings, Scott gets right with the military spouses, and 10 days for a bill to become law gets to turn into 100 without a peep.