Posted: Dec. 8, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Joint Finance Committee will be reviving a golden oldie in the next legislative session – emphasis on the gold.

The new co-chair from the House side will be state Rep. Richard C. Cathcart, a veteran Middletown Republican last seen trying to overthrow Republican Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith. Talk about a consolation prize. Cathcart has gone from wanting to be the head cat-herder to being the king of the counting house.

Cathcart’s new role, taking over from state Rep. Joseph G. DiPinto, a Wilmington Republican who retired, has not been announced publicly, although lawmakers have been notified. 

Ditto for a new assignment for state Rep. William A. Oberle Jr.

A Republican with 30 years in the legislature from a Newark-Glasgow area district, he will be the House co-chair of the Bond Bill Committee, the other money committee, which drafts the state’s construction budget. Oberle replaces state Rep. Roger P. Roy, a Pike Creek Republican who retired.

There does not appear to be any squawking about Oberle. Not so Cathcart. 

Cathcart also happens to work at Delaware State University in Dover as an associate vice president of business services. The university was last seen hiring state Rep. Nancy H. Wagner, a Dover Republican, as its executive director for community relations, not very long after that pesky election was out of the way. No sense doing it beforehand and turning the vote into a referendum on double dipping. 

Stockpiling legislators is reliably regarded as a means to acquiring legislative largesse, something Delaware State has not been very good at. It has been the stepchild to the doted-upon University of Delaware and Delaware Technical & Community College.

There is no better place to turn for goodies than the General Assembly’s very own Land of Milk & Honey, also known as the Joint Finance Committee, where 12 members, evenly divided between the Senate and the House of Representatives and between the Democrats and the Republicans, write the state’s operating budget.

Cathcart will be sharing the gavel with state Sen. Nancy W. Cook, a Kenton Democrat who is to the Joint Finance Committee what Betsy Ross is to the Flag – not only legendary but no stripe, star or stitch get in there without her.

The last time a college administrator co-chaired the committee, it made legislative lore.

Orlando J. George Jr. moved up from Democratic state representative to House speaker and from math instructor to Delaware Tech president, a post he left the legislature to take in 1995. His competence was never doubted, but neither was the political equation that what was good for Lonnie George was good for Delaware Tech, and what was good for Delaware Tech was good for Lonnie George.

As possible conflicts go, Cathcart sees time as his biggest one. The Joint Finance Committee is the most time-consuming assignment in Legislative Hall. Cook and DiPinto handled it as full-time legislators. Cathcart says a staff reorganization at Delaware State will give him the leeway to satisfy all his responsibilities.

Cathcart does not see his job at Delaware State as an issue -- not while there is Lonnie George as a role model. "All legislators should be very aware of any perception of conflicts," Cathcart said.

There are others who are concerned, however. State Sen. George H. Bunting, a Bethany Beach Democrat, is thinking about sponsoring a bill to take a stand against nest-feathering. He wants to make legislators who draw paychecks from Delaware agencies ineligible to serve on either the Joint Finance Committee or the Bond Bill Committee, although pensioners would be allowed.

Bunting is also a realist. "It will probably go nowhere," he said.

Not to mention how badly it would shrink the pool of possible committee members. Something like 14 out of the 62 legislators would be excluded. If Bunting added retirees, it would balloon to about 25 lawmakers. This is a government of the legislators, by the legislators and for the legislators.

Furthermore, it really is unfair to single out double dippers for potential conflicts, not with labor union members getting onto labor committees and an insurance agent on an insurance committee.

The House also has the predicament of trying to decide what to do about committee assignments for state Rep. John C. Atkins, the Millsboro Republican put on probation this week in a domestic violence case. He spent the last legislative session as the chair of the House Corrections Committee with jurisdiction over the department that will be overseeing his year-long probation.

There are conflicts and there are conflicts. It will be interesting to watch how Wayne Smith, the House majority leader, gets along with Cathcart and Oberle in their enhanced roles.

All that anyone needed to know about the relationship between Smith and Cathcart became apparent when Cathcart ran for majority leader. The relationship between Smith and Oberle is not quite the same as the Shiites and the Sunnis, mostly because it is not acceptable in Legislative Hall to form armed militias.

Smith promises that all will be fine. "Winning is the only revenge you need," he said. "You can't choose your relatives or your caucus mates. I think they'll both do an excellent job."

Besides, Smith believes in historical precedent. "Abraham Lincoln put all four people who ran against him for the presidential nomination in 1860 into his Cabinet," he said.

What a legislative session it will be -- double dippers to the fore, a state representative on probation and a House majority leader who thinks he looks good in a stovepipe hat.