Posted: June 28, 2012


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Just when it seems like every screwy thing that could possibly happen in the Delaware General Assembly has already happened, something new comes along.

The Senate's roll call on online gambling was as screwy as it gets.

The bill might have been short of the votes it needed to pass, but it passed, anyway, in a tomfoolery of errors, and it was a big, big deal that it did.

A whole bunch of people who made their way Wednesday to Legislative Hall in Dover in their dark, expensive suits to watch the vote were a sure sign that an awful lot of money was at stake.

With the Senate vote, Delaware was on its way as the first state to legalize cyber-betting, and if there is anything Delaware takes seriously, it is its status as the First State. First in the Constitution, first in corporate law, first to be the "Angry Birds" of gambling.

The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives as House Bill 333. What a number, like the legislature was a giant slot machine and the gambling interests had come up with a lucky 3-3-3.

A little luck never hurts in Dover. Nor does the backing of the three race tracks with casinos -- Delaware Park, Dover Downs and Harrington -- that form one of the most powerful lobbying forces in the state and stand to benefit from the legislation as agents for online gaming.

The House already had passed the bill with ease two weeks earlier. Next it was the Senate's turn.

The Senate had to deliver a three-fifths supermajority -- 13 yes votes from the 21 senators -- to get the bill to the desk of Jack Markell, the Democratic governor who was ready to sign it into law.

The roll call was pretty much going as expected, with conservative downstaters, Republican and Democrat, mostly voting against it and just about everybody else voting for it.

Then Bob Venables, a conservative Democrat from Sussex County, voted for it. Then Colin Bonini, a conservative Republican from Kent County, switched his vote from "not voting" to yes.

It gave the bill 14 votes. Matt Denn, the Democratic lieutenant governor who presides over the Senate, declared the measure passed, and that should have been that.

Minutes later, however, Venables addressed the chamber. He said he meant to vote no. He said he got confused and thought he was voting on an amendment, which actually had been stricken.

"I missed it," Venables said.

Venables certainly caught Bonini's attention. Bonini spoke up, too, noting their two votes had delivered the supermajority, or else the bill would have failed. Bonini looked as stricken as the amendment that Venables thought he was voting on.

Actually, Bonini was not entirely sorry the bill was approved. Harrington Raceway & Casino is in his district, and plenty of his constituents work either there or at Dover Downs, and he fretted that jobs would be lost without the bill.

"I miscounted, because I assumed Bob was a 'no.' In this economy, I couldn't vote to lay people off. I'm sick that the choices were layoffs or expanded gambling. Politics is binary, it's yes or no," Bonini said in an interview afterwards.

As screwy as the roll call was, there was a way it could get worse.

The legislature has procedures to let roll calls be rescinded and votes cast anew. The catch is, the bill still has to be physically in the chamber. The Senate was well aware of it.

With the votes of Venables and Bonini in doubt, the bill was fast-walked across Legislative Hall to the House, because legislative protocol requires bills to be returned to the chamber where they originate, and then the House in its customary brisk fashion walked it immediately upstairs to the governor's office.

It was all happening so fast, it was like trying to get out of Dodge.

Even after the bill was sent to the governor, the legislature still had the right to ask for its recall, not that there was any chance the governor would go along with it. What goes up in Legislative Hall does not come down, not unless it goes down with a veto.

The governor had the bill, and the governor was keeping the bill. Markell signed it into law on Thursday morning, before the legislators could get back into session and try something screwy.

A roll call can be taken back, but not the governor's signature.