Posted: Feb. 18, 2014
THE MOST INTERESTING VOTE IN LEGISLATIVE HALL
By Celia Cohen
The most interesting vote in Legislative Hall during the mini-session last month was not as consequential as the one on the minimum wage nor as landmark as the confirmation of a new chief justice.
It was not even a vote on a bill, but on an amendment.
It looked like a slap at the speaker, and it stirred up conspiracy theories that control of the House of Representatives could be hijacked by a small cadre of Democrats in cahoots with the Republican minority caucus.
Keep reading, my friends.
The vote came on Thursday, Jan. 30, the last day in Dover before the Delaware General Assembly broke until spring for six weeks of budget hearings.
The House was taking up a politically charged bill to rein in Chip Flowers, the go-it-alone Democratic treasurer, by re-clarifying that the state's investment practices are to be set by the Cash Management Policy Board, a panel of outside investment professionals and state officials, including the treasurer, and not solely by the treasurer.
As people no doubt will remember, Flowers was quite noisy in claiming that the responsibility was his, at least when he was not otherwise occupied with explaining travel and credit card usage in his office or ordering room-service breakfast in Alaska for a farmer's omelet, wheat toast, pancakes, two orders of bacon, two orders of apple juice, orange juice and a small pot of coffee.
The legislation, Senate Bill 151, came with clout. Its chief backers were Patti Blevins, the Senate's Democratic president pro tem, and Pete Schwartzkopf, the House's Democratic speaker.
The Senate had already passed the bill unanimously and gone home.
If the House left the bill undone or tacked on an amendment, it was going to be like the shadow on Groundhog Day, six more weeks of Chip Flowers.
There was an amendment proposed. The idea was to require the investment professionals on the cash management board to file financial disclosure forms annually, and not only at the point they were nominated and confirmed for three-year terms. Just a little brush-back for the board members who stood their ground against Flowers.
The amendment was sponsored by John Kowalko, a champion of the progressive Democrats with a sweep of mustache and a swatch of hair that Stalin could love, so imagine the shock when his amendment nearly got through on a 19-19 vote in the 41-member chamber with the backing of five Democrats and all 14 Republicans.
This was like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party voting together.
"We were kind of amazed it came down to 19-19," said Dan Short, the Republican minority leader.
"I never in my wildest dreams expected the Republicans to line up with John Kowalko in support of Chip Flowers. It doesn't make a lot of sense," said Schwartzkopf, the speaker.
Kowalko himself says he was so uplifted by the vote that he crossed the aisle to shake the Republican hands of Ron Gray, Harvey Kenton, Steve Smyk and Dave Wilson, all of them Sussex Countians like Schwartzkopf.
A roll call like that brings a whiff of mutiny to the air, particularly because the Democrats never knitted themselves back together again after they started the 2013-2014 session with a close vote for speaker between Schwartzkopf and Helene Keeley. Kowalko was for Keeley.
Kowalko insists he was not conspiring with a cell of like-thinking Democrats and the Republicans to make mischief and undermine Schwartzkopf's leadership, but just trying to promote open government through his amendment.
"I didn't organize anything. It was a good-government transparency amendment to the bill. I have too much respect for the two-party system. The disruption would be worse than the benefit," he said.
Ditto from Short, the minority leader. "There's no free agent trading going on," he quipped. "The vote was indicative of the content of the amendment. It was good policy. Coincidentally he's the sponsor. It wasn't anything about backing Kowalko against the speaker."
The bill without the amendment sailed through a roll call by 36-0. Kowalko abstained. It was signed into law by Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, last Friday.
Schwartzkopf had prevailed, and he was disinclined to regard the vote on the amendment as the shape of rebellion to come.
"I don't think it was a personal shot at me, although it did look that way," Schwartzkopf said.
Still, that 19-19 breakdown is unlikely to be forgotten. Stay interested, my friends.