Delaware lawmakers recess after marathon final night

Delaware lawmakers on Sunday ushered in a new fiscal year mired in a political stalemate prompted by a $1 minimum wage increase that was rammed through in the middle of the night by Democratic leaders and caused angered Republicans to block an $816 million capital budget.

Lawmakers gathered Saturday afternoon for the final day of the 2018 legislative session, but dawn broke Sunday with Republicans and Democrats at an impasse that left two budget bills hanging in the balance.

Eighteen and a half hours after the House convened, lawmakers finally brought down the gavel on this year's session after Democrats agreed to a GOP proposal to delay implementation of the minimum wage increase and allow employers to pay minors and probationary workers 50 cents less per hour.

The compromise on the minimum wage paved the way for quick passage of the capital budget and a $52 million grants package for community groups, volunteer fire companies and nonprofit agencies.

The capital budget calls for $368 million for transportation projects and $448 million for non-transportation construction and renovation projects, an increase of more than 38 percent and far more than Democratic Gov. John Carney proposed.

In passing the grants package, lawmakers restored cuts of 20 percent that were imposed last year as Republicans and Democrats struggled to reach a compromise on spending cuts and tax increases to balance the budget.

"They talk about making sausage or scrapple up here, and it's ugly. It's ugly at times, but you have to look at the end result," House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf said after the chamber adjourned at 8:25 a.m. The Senate followed suit 10 minutes later.

Few observers expected an all-night session, given that Carney had signed a $4.3 billion operating budget for the new fiscal year on Thursday.

"It took longer than we expected but, in the end, we passed and I was pleased to sign a capital budget that will help us build schools, roads and other critical infrastructure throughout our state," Carney said in a prepared statement.

The two budget bills were held up for hours as lawmakers focused on other measures, including tax cuts for Delaware's financially struggling casinos and voting to increase the minimum hourly wage, currently $8.25, by a dollar over two years.

The minimum wage proposal had been defeated in the Senate earlier this year but was resurrected in a new bill that cleared the Senate late Saturday by one vote, followed by a similar one-vote margin later in the House.

No GOP lawmaker voted for the measure, with House Republicans decrying a vote being taken shortly before 4 a.m. with no committee hearing and no chance for the business community and other members of the public to weigh in.

Republicans responded by refusing to vote for the capital budget, which needed their support to pass. The impasse also held up consideration of the grants package.

"At some point, you have to make a stand, you have to be heard," said House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford.

Lawmakers retreated to their corners around 4:40 a.m. as legislative leaders met behind closed doors to resolve the impasse.

Earlier, lawmakers approved a bill calling for the state to take a smaller share of slot machine and table game revenue, an effort to put Delaware's three casinos on sounder financial footing amid increased competition from neighboring states.

The Democrat-led Senate declined to consider a proposal to allow early voting after realizing it would not be able to meet the required two-thirds vote requirement. The bill was earlier declared to have passed the Democrat-led House with no Republican support before lawmakers were told it needed a supermajority because it amended Wilmington's charter.

Meanwhile, Carney signed an executive order that commits his administration to adopting new fiscal restraints in developing proposed budgets to recommend to the legislature. The order directs the state budget office and the panel that sets Delaware's official revenue forecast to adhere to certain limits based on a benchmark index of various economic indicators.

Carney also signed legislation giving 12 weeks of paid family leave to teachers and other state government workers.

The bill makes Delaware the sixth state in the nation to offer paid parental leave to public workers. It allows a state worker employed for at least a year to take three months of paid maternity or paternity leave upon the birth of a child or the adoption of a child age 6 or younger.