Posted: July 9, 2008
RAGE AGAINST THE DESK DRAWER
By Celia Cohen
Newark is a throwback. The academically-inclined home to the University of Delaware persists in thinking the government should be some sort of Athenian democracy where the people have a say. Civilly, of course.
Their legislators get that.
It was the reason five of them, all representing parts of the city, staged a forum Tuesday evening at the Municipal Building a week after the Delaware General Assembly concluded its 2008 session to talk about what happened.
It was the reason the lawmakers checked their party affiliation at the door and acted like Musketeers, all for one and one for all. They could have been a Society for the Admiration of James Madison, wary of faction.
Mostly it was the reason the forum evolved into a backlash against government secrecy. The crowd of Newarkers who came to hear from the legislators had a lot it wanted explanations for.
A surprise windfall for the budget. Big Head. Desk drawer vetoes. Especially desk drawer vetoes.
The lawmakers present were Senate Minority Whip Liane Sorenson, Sen. Steve Amick and Rep. Joe Miro, the Republicans, and Rep. Terry Schooley and Rep. John Kowalko, the Democrats. Sen. Karen Peterson, a Democrat, and Rep. Pam Maier, a Republican, also have districts that take in Newark, but neither could attend.
It is a testament to gerrymandering that so many legislators have a piece of the city. Drawing districts into strange shapes for political advantage is the kind of gamesmanship that typically galls Newark, but it can have its benefits. Having seven pro-city votes in the legislature beats having one or two or three.
The crowd was small but earnest, only three or four times bigger than the number of legislators. Its suspicions of state government were apparent in a question about how $63 million could arrive from nowhere to balance the budget, the implication being that only negligence or incompetence could account for not knowing about that much money.
The legislators could answer that one. It had to do with Delaware's status as the incorporation capital of the world. A very large international business, its identity kept confidential by law, restructured itself internally in a way that resulted in a taxable gain.
"They sent us $63 million literally by wire, literally without notice. I know that sounds strange," Amick said. "It is not truly found money. It was something we were owed but didn't know we were owed."
The crowd also directed resentment at Big Head, the satiric name for the legislative leaders who meet privately with administration officials to frame a spending and revenue package, and also at the desk drawer veto, a Senate practice that lets committee chairs lock up bills without ever receiving a hearing or a vote. It has made Sen. Thurman Adams, the Bridgeville Democrat who is the president pro tem, a household name.
"Why do we even have legislators? You've got the Big Heads and Sen. Adams," someone asked.
Big Head had its defenders, and not just because Sorenson as the Senate minority whip is part of the council. It is known formally as the "financial leadership group," a name nobody uses, not even its members.
Big Head exists out of convenience. It would be impractical, if not impossible, for all 62 legislators to be part of the negotiations, and the council's decisions are turned into bills that are debated in public and voted up or down. For proof of good will, Sorenson pointed to the defeat of a hospital tax and alcohol tax that Big Head proposed.
"The Big Head committee doesn't dictate what happens," Sorenson said.
There was no justifying the desk drawer veto, however. The legislators uniformly declared they hated it.
The representatives conceded bills can be stoppered in the House, too -- if the speaker and majority leader keep them off the agenda even after a committee airs them and votes to say they are ready for the floor. Still, it is not in the same league as the individual willfulness that comes to bear in the Senate.
It is classic Catch-22 why senators cannot force a change in their rules. "We can't get it to a vote because it's in the drawer," Amick said.
An end-of-session forum has been a tradition of the Newark legislators for more than 15 years, although no one is exactly sure when they started. For Amick, it was his valedictory as he retires from public life after 22 years.
Amick took the opportunity to explain the ways of the legislature. He repeated the advice he gave Kowalko in a friendly word across the aisle, Republican to Democrat in that unique Newark way, when Kowalko arrived as a rookie for the 2007-2008 term.
"Being in the legislature is like going into a crowded bar on Friday night. Nobody gets out of the way of the bar. If you want to get to the bar where the decisions are being made and order your drink, you have to be prepared with a little bit of elbow," Amick said.
"Nobody gets out of the way. Sen. Adams is not going to get out of the way."
Candor is nothing new for Amick, whose tenure reflected the sense of academic freedom inborn in his home base of Newark. Even so, there is nothing so liberating as retirement with its safety from retribution -- either from the voters or from fellow legislators -- to bring on a really good case of the tell-'em-the-truth-ems.