Posted: July 8, 2015


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The governor was not just speaking figuratively when he mentioned there were "a lot of moving parts" that had to come together before the legislature could go home for the year.

Those "moving parts" included bicycles. Really.

As the Delaware General Assembly prepared for an all-nighter in Dover on June 30th, the last day of the 2015 session, it was no more settled than a pile of jumping beans.

The budget bill for the new fiscal year was not finalized. Neither was the bond bill for construction projects. Ditto for the grant-in-aid bill for fire companies, senior centers and other organizations right up there with mom and apple pie.

This can happen with a revenue crunch that has been relentless since the Great Recession.

Everything was hung up because of another bill, designed to pay for desperately needed roadwork by raising various motor vehicle-related fees. Roadwork good. Fees bad.

The Democrats wanted the bill. The Democrats had the governor, the majority in the Senate and the majority in the House of Representatives, but they could not move the bill, because it was a revenue-raiser and took a super-majority, meaning they had to get a vote from at least one Republican senator. For want of a nail . . .

The Republicans meant to make their lone vote stick. They have mostly been bystanders in Legislative Hall, ever since they lost control of the House in 2008 to give the Democrats super-majorities in both chambers, until they finally picked up a new Senate seat in 2014. Leverage!

"I didn't know what was going to happen," said Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, after he actually did. "There were a lot of moving parts."

Enter the bicycles.

As the participants tell it, Markell and Greg Lavelle, the Senate's Republican minority whip, were both in Lewes, where Markell and his wife Carla had rented a house for the week and Lavelle had a summer place. On Saturday, June 27, three days before the legislature was to end, although nobody was sure at that point it would, Markell invited Lavelle to go for a bike ride on Sunday the 28th.

Lavelle accepted. It surprised him when Markell showed up by himself. The governor is still the governor, after all.

Nobody would mistake this "Bike Ride at the Beach" for Ronald Reagan's "Walk in the Woods" with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, during momentous negotiations in the mid-1980s on arms control, but the cycling was a piece of all of the moving parts.

"It's a personal touch from the governor. It brought the urgency of the situation to the front," said Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic speaker who knew about the bike ride.

Ideas were exchanged. Conversation, which had faltered, was restarted, especially once Markell called Schwartzkopf and Patti Blevins, the Democratic president pro tem, shortly afterwards.

It did not hurt that everyone was feeling the pressure.

The Democrats were the governing party, and they had to govern. The Republicans did not want to leave themselves open to the charge they shut down the government. Nobody wanted matters to drag beyond June 30th.

The shift toward a resolution came as midnight approached on the last day. It was a deal that had the Republicans providing what would turn out to be three votes in the Senate -- from Lavelle, Ernie Lopez and Gary Simpson, the minority leader -- for the bill raising fees for the roadwork.

In exchange, the Republicans got the Democrats to go along with restructuring the prevailing wage system, which is dear to the hearts of the Democrats' friends in the labor unions because it sets the pay scale for public works projects.

"You have to give a little to get a little. Sure, we had that vote, but as Senator Simpson has said, we're also constitutionally mandated to pass a budget," Lavelle said.

The legislators settled on the parameters for the prevailing wage system, and then they put representatives from the labor unions and the independent contractors in a room and told them to come up with the language to make it work, which they did.

When the prevailing wage bill got through the House at about 12:40 in the morning of July 1st, a comment from Schwartzkopf, the speaker, let on just how important it was.

"It has been a moving ball for six months, and the bill finally got nailed down about an hour ago," Schwartzkopf said.

The legislature was on its way, but it was not there yet. Six of the more leftward Democratic representatives -- Paul Baumbach, Andria Bennett, John Kowalko, Sean Lynn, Sean Matthews and Kim Williams -- were balking about the budget bill, generally because they wanted to raise taxes at the high end or objected to the way the state paid out transportation costs to charter schools.

Without them, the House Democrats did not have enough votes on their own side of the aisle to pass the budget.

Never mind. The Democrats had already cut one deal with the Republicans. They could cut another, even if it did mean raiding a pot of money from legal settlements. It is bad policy, folding one-time money into the operating budget, but it was late and the prospect of no budget was worse.

With a million here and another million or two there, the Democrats came up with the sweetener for Republican votes, notably by restoring money for state troopers in Sussex County and farmland preservation, along with grant-in-aid levels.

With that, all of the moving parts of legislating, dealing and cycling clicked into place, and the six-month session, a gut churner all long, came to a close.

"You have to be able to tolerate ambiguity," Markell said in classic understatement.

There are many ways to govern. Nothing says a "Bike Ride at the Beach" cannot be part of it.