Posted: July 1, 2008
NOT WITH A BANG, BUT A WHIMPER
By Celia Cohen
Here are things that are more fun to do than attend the Delaware General Assembly as it shuts down for the year on June 30.
--Voice mail hell, where you never, ever reach a human being.
--Ground Hog Day, an endless loop of banalities like in the movie.
The slow throes of Legislative Hall at the end of the session are the equivalent of watching a checkbook being balanced -- for 10 or 12 hours.
The lawmakers arrive in Dover in late afternoon with a must list of adopting a budget, a bond bill for construction projects and a grants-in-aid package for fire companies, senior centers and non-profits, the three measures collectively worth billions of dollars, to keep the state government functioning for another year.
This has all the dramatic tension of Bazooka bubble gum comics, but the legislators never seem to manage it before the sun comes up.
Year in and year out, the June 30 script is the same. State Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican, will complain about state spending. The lobbyists will go home before everybody else because they have the General Assembly sewn up.
For this Caesar Rodney rode to Philadelphia?
When the final night closes out a two-year term, as this one did for the 144th General Assembly, it is also a time for saying good-bye to the people marking their last June 30.
There are people who know they will not be in office for another one. The governor. Steve Amick and John Still, Republicans retiring after two decades in the state Senate. Ben Ewing, a Republican nursing cancer as he leaves after a similar tenure in the state House of Representatives.
Then there are people who might be spending their last June 30 in Dover, although they prefer not.
People like John Carney, the Democratic lieutenant governor running for governor. Matt Denn, the Democratic insurance commissioner, and Charlie Copeland, the Senate Republican minority leader, both wanting to be lieutenant governor. Bethany Hall-Long, a Democratic state representative shooting for the Senate. John Brady, a House attorney who is the Republican candidate for insurance commissioner.
"There are also people who aren't coming back, but they don't know it," quipped Bob Gilligan, the Democratic state representative who is the minority leader.
Gilligan has a vested interest. The Democrats are trying to net at least two seats from the other side of the aisle, swinging control of the House their way and putting Gilligan in line to be the speaker.
On this June 30, however, the only departures the legislature could deal with were the known knowns, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might say.
The General Assembly can be a callous place, but everyone seems to have a soft spot for "Gentle Ben" Ewing, a mellow 77-year-old Sussex Countian who used to be the lieutenant colonel of the state police. Ewing announced just two weeks ago he would not be back, and it is still sinking in.
There was an outpouring of affection for him when he introduced to the House a woman, who is a family friend, as his sweetheart.
"I always thought I was your sweetheart," teased state Rep. Deborah Hudson, a fellow Republican. Across the aisle on the Democratic side of the chamber, state Rep. Helene Keeley said she thought she was Ewing's sweetheart and Hall-Long said she thought she was, too.
Steve Amick came in for an unusual tribute. Shortly after three this morning, both houses approved an 86-page bill on which Amick had toiled for eight years to craft a law governing condominiums, time shares and cooperatives.
Eight years. It was a labor of love for Amick, at 61 a mostly-retired real estate lawyer from Newark. Although he was showered with accolades -- "statesman," "gentleman," "scholar" -- it was the passage of the bill that seemed to overwhelm him.
John Still was praised for his diligent work on the state finances in this most difficult of years, as revenues plummeted and costs rose. A 55-year-old insurance broker from Dover, he accepted an assignment to "Big Head," an unofficial council of legislative leaders who meet with administration officials on revenue and spending.
Big Head meets privately, and the origin of the name is almost as closely held. Almost.
Russ Larson, the controller general in charge of the legislature's fiscal arm, recently told the tale in e-mail to Delaware Grapevine. "The reference to Big Head stems from a comment made by a member of my staff many years ago," he said.
It seems that several people from Larson's office were racing to one of those leadership sessions when someone said it reminded him of a Star Trek episode about Talosians, a race with large heads shaped something like lightbulbs, overdeveloped mental capacity and atrophying bodies.
After the meeting, Larson worked up a spread sheet in his office but hesitated as he decided to save it. "I couldn't come up with an appropriate file name. My staff guy said, why not Big Head? It ended up being printed on the footer of the spread sheet. And history was made."
Just like the 144th General Assembly. It is history, too.