Posted: July 1, 2015


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

As if the legislative ordeal of June 30th is not long enough all by itself, the scientists had to give it a leap second this year.

The scientists were being logical. They slip in an extra second periodically to account for the tiny irregularities going on in the earth's rotation. The last one was in 2012.

What the scientists did not bother to account for was the colossal wobbling that was going on in Legislative Hall in Dover, where the Delaware General Assembly was spinning in its own erratic orbit.

It had left so much undone for June 30th, its last session of the year, its dysfunction did not deserve any more time, not even so much as a leap second.

Night was already destined to turn into day before the legislators could call it quits.

Work on the three annual money measures essential to keep the state operating -- the budget bill, the bond bill for construction projects and the grant-in-aid bill for fire companies, senior centers and other charitable causes -- was incomplete.

Another bill to raise various motor vehicle-related fees to pay for roadwork was in limbo, despite being considered so desperately necessarily that Jennifer Cohan, the transportation secretary, had taken to making the point by carrying around a concrete chunk, which fell off I-495 last summer, as if it were an omen of doom.

Even a leap second was a terrible thing to waste. As it turned out, though, a second was enough time for the legislators to do what had to be done.

They blinked.

Enough of them quit feuding and fussing and feinting to craft the compromises that saved the legislative session. It seems nothing concentrates the mind, short of hanging, like the prospect of going home to the voters without a budget.

"Don't worry about a thing," Dave Sokola, a Democratic senator, said presciently while the night was still young, "we've got a leap second."

The key to legislative salvation was the transportation bill for financing the roadwork. The Democrats run the General Assembly, but they needed at least one vote from a Republican senator for the super-majority required for passage.

It came together when the Democrats blinked and agreed to restructure the prevailing wage system -- the cost of wages on construction projects, regarded by the Democrats' allies in the labor unions as their life's blood -- and the Republicans blinked and agreed to back the transportation bill, even though it meant doing what they hate to do, which is raising taxes or fees.

In the end, three Republican senators switched and voted yes. They were Gary Simpson, the minority leader, Greg Lavelle, the minority whip, and Ernie Lopez. Funny how none of them are up for election again until 2018.

The first blink was like a gateway drug. It led to more and more.

Legislators blinked and put off future cuts in the share of real estate transfer taxes that go to the counties and municipalities, which were screaming bloody murder. They blinked and decided to keep paying for state troopers in Sussex County. They blinked and restored grant-in-aid levels.

A lot of it could happen because of a big blink on a plan not to tap into money from legal settlements. As if legislators could resist. Sooner would a dog not scratch at its fleas.

Not that any of it was a sure thing. The decision-making was excruciatingly difficult because of an unrelenting revenue crunch.

As Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, repeatedly has pointed out, the budget has declined since he took office in 2009 by nearly one percent, when adjusted for inflation and population growth, and more than 1,000 employee positions have been eliminated through attrition.

"This was definitely the craziest session," said Markell, shortly before he signed all the money bills and sent everyone home at daybreak.

"The give-and-take and the back-and-forth Saturday, Sunday, Monday, today, there was a lot. Going into today, I didn't know what was going to happen."

A session that long has to have some comic relief.

So there was Joe Miro, a Republican representative, gratuitously introducing a nothing bill about fireworks regulation at 4:30 in the morning and Pete Schwartzkopf, the disbelieving Democratic speaker, dumping the bill into committee quicker than someone could say, "Not this Fourth of July."

There was also John Fluharty, the state Republican Party's executive director, generally called "Flu," making himself hard not to notice outside Legislative Hall before anything got worked out.

He wore a chicken suit and carried a sign reading, "Democrats, stop clucking with the budget."

Call it Avian Flu. In a session where every second counted and nothing seemed certain, someone had to put the "fun" in dys-fun-ctional.