2013 has all the makings of the most momentous year in recent legislative memory.
The House and Senate have both undergone major institutional and leadership changes.
More progressives now serve in Dover than before.
A pro-business governor with aspirations for higher office must decide both what’s best for the state and what’s best for his political future.
A host of important issues await, including, of course, Delaware’s economic condition.
THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY FOR NEWBIES
The Delaware State Senate has 21 members, currently 13 D’s and 8 R’s. The President Pro-Tempore leads the Senate, although the Lieutenant Governor often, but not always, presides over the senate sessions as a non-voting member. Here is a list of the Senate members.
The House of Representatives has 41 members, currently 27 D’s, 14 R’s. The Speaker of the House presides over the body. You can find the House membership here.
The General Assembly is in session from the second Tuesday in January through June 30 each year. Three days a week–Tuesday through Thursday. The Senate often returns for a special session in the fall to consider nominations.
The General Assembly breaks for six weeks at the end of January for Joint Finance Committee (budget) hearings and meetings. There is another 2-week break around Easter, and an additional week’s break around Memorial Day. The Memorial Day break often enables the ‘money’ committees to finish work on marking up the budget.The typical General Assembly meets in session about 50 days a year.
The House always holds committee meetings on Wednesdays until the last week or two of session, and does not generally conduct any substantive business on Wednesdays. Senate committees also generally meet on Wednesdays, but the Senate can and does run an occasional agenda on committee days.
January generally follows a particular pattern. The first day this year will be ceremonial in nature, with swearing-in ceremonies. Although the Senate officially was sworn in during a November Special Session to consider nominations, there will be family and friends galore in Legislative Hall today to participate in the ceremonies. The House will elect its leadership and, although there were and are some hard feeling arising out of the Democratic Caucus votes, do not look for a challenge to Speaker-Designate Pete Schwartzkopf. Governor Markell delivers his State of the State Address this week, and his legislative agenda will be spelled out in that speech. By the end of January, the Governor will also submit his proposed budget to the General Assembly.
While some ‘emergency’ legislation passes in January, it’s usually a slow month. I would love, however, for legislators to lay down some markers this month. In particular, I would like to see Sen. Bob Marshall get his minimum wage increase legislation through the Senate in January. He passed a two-step minimum wage increase through the Senate last session, only to see it buried in the House with the approval of the Governor. While gun control and gay marriage will be on the political front-burner, I hope that progressives push for meaningful reforms for workers this session. The most meaningful reform that could be enacted quickly is a minimum wage increase.
MY INITIAL OBSERVATIONS
President Pro-Tempore Patti Blevins earns early high marks from me. Not just for the committee assignments, which I applaud. I’ve also been impressed with her comments, which suggest to me that a lot of thought has gone into what she’s done. Plus, she has done something the Senate should have done at least two decades ago. She has named a Chief-of-Staff, and she’s chosen wisely. Val McCartan is Blevins’ long-time administrative aide. So, yes, she’s the obvious choice. But she’s an excellent choice, and I think, perfect for the job. She’s liked and respected, and she has just enough steel to lay down the law when needed. I don’t think that Sen. Blevins could have done this with all the old institutional memory (read ‘resistance to professionalism’) still around. But this is a smart move, especially considering that this body of 21 will have six new members this year.
Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf has some work to do if he is to reestablish the institutional comity that was the hallmark of the House for the past 30 years or so. That is, if Pete really wants to establish said institutional comity. Granted, the leadership battle was a bruising one. A leader can either choose to help the healing process, or to exacerbate tensions that arose from the battle. So far, the Speaker has opted for the latter. It is, however, still early.
Governor Markell fully intends to push legalization of gay marriage this session. And I admit ambivalence. I support gay marriage. I strongly support gay marriage. My ambivalence stems from this nagging concern that Markell also intends to use this issue to burn up all the progressive oxygen that could otherwise go to challenge the most wrongheaded of his pro-business/pro-1% positions. For example, let’s just see how much ‘shared sacrifice’ Markell demands of the Top 1% should our finances require sacrifice. Let’s just see whether Markell supports a minimum wage increase this year. Let’s just see if Markell demands economic justice for low-income retail and restaurant workers while their corporate masters rip off both them and the State of Delaware. Let’s just see if Markell demands real lobbying reform this year, not the phony ‘reform’ he used to help prop up Tiny Tony DeLuca last session.
Here’s my point on Markell. He has aspirations for higher office. While he legitimately supports gay marriage, he also seeks to burnish his progressive cred by pushing it. However, he has so far aligned himself with the Carper DINO economic wing of the Democratic Party (what’s good for business is good for Delaware). If he doesn’t change, I intend to call him on it. If he does, then he won’t have a stronger supporter than me.
We probably have more progressives than we ever have in the Delaware General Assembly. We also have a lot of real Democrats, not primarily ‘business-first’ D’s, although there are still some of them around. I hope that these Democratic legislators pursue Democratic and progressive policies, including first and foremost, fairness for workers. Increased wages; decent working conditions; protection from businesses engaged in ‘deadbeat capitalism’ (shifting expenses from the companies onto the state), businesses like Walmart and the glop shop chain restaurants and national pizza places.
I hope to see a lot of progressive proposals this year. Gun control, empirical review of state giveaways to businesses, reining in Delmarva Power, an end to legislative double-dipping, serious consideration of single-payer, and lots more.
In other words, I would like to see the progressive voices introduce legislation that has not come from the Markell Administration, but rather reflects their own particular interests. It’s easy to simply carry the ball for the Executive branch, and there’s nothing wrong with it as long as the proposals merit that support. But the legislative branch can and should be independent of the governor. I want to see more legislative initiative this term.
I can assure legislators that I will help promote those progressive initiatives as best I can, and I know that I’m by no means alone.. We’re learning every day how to effectively harness the power of grassroots movements. Give us proposals we can coalesce around, and we’ll do everything we can to help see them through to fruition.
WATCH THIS SPACE
In the past, I’ve written a post-game wrap-up/pre-game show column for each legislative day. I don’t plan to do so this year, although I will write a column when I deem it worthwhile. I’ll, of course, write at least one and probably at least two reports each week. I’m only cutting back because, after rereading last year’s legislative posts, there were days that the column reflected sort-of an ‘obligatory’ quality. If I’m bored, the reader will be bored. Bottom line: If there’s enough interesting (to me) material, I’ll post. If not, I’ll hold off until there is.
Let the games begin!