Delaware lawmakers eye budget vote procedures

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NEW CASTLE, Del. (AP) — Democratic leaders of the legislature's budget-writing committee don't seem interested in changing voting requirements for passage of the state's annual spending plan.

But a task force meeting for the first time Thursday in response to a resolution sponsored by Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, is trying to fashion an argument to defend the status quo.

The budget bill traditionally has been treated as needing only a simple majority, even though Delaware's constitution requires a three-fourths vote to appropriate public money to any corporation.

Two corporations receiving money in the budget bill every year are the University of Delaware and Delaware State University. UD received $118.6 million in this year's operating budget, while DSU got $34.5 million. Charter schools, meanwhile, are corporations that are funded through the education department's budget.

"We've been doing it for a hundred years this way," said Laure Ergin, associate vice president and deputy general counsel for the University of Delaware. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Other nonprofit corporations, such as volunteer fire companies and community service agencies, receive state money each year in a separate grant-in-aid bill. Unlike the operating budget, however, the grants bill requires three-fourths majorities in the House and Senate, as does the capital budget for construction and road projects.

One idea the task force is mulling is to define what a corporation is, at least for budget purposes, or what the 19th-century drafters of the constitution intended it to mean.

"What did that mean in the 1800s?" asked Sen. Harris McDowell III, D-Wilmington, co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee.

Fellow co-chair Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, said "it defies logic" to think that the drafters of the constitution considered institutions of higher education to be corporations.

"We can't be stymied by an ambiguous constitutional provision," Smith said.

Other options the task force might explore include the feasibility of separating university funding from the budget bill, using legislative language to bypass the three-fourths majority provision, or, as a last resort, amending the constitution. Officials also could ask the Delaware Supreme Court for an advisory opinion but do not appear willing to take that step, at least for now.

Whatever resolution the group tries to come up with, however, the apparent disconnect between the constitution and legislative tradition may ultimately have to be resolved by the Supreme Court.

"This group can't decide," McDowell acknowledged at the start of Thursday's meeting. "I think there's only one place to go."

Bonini, a GOP gubernatorial candidate known for his perennial opposition to the budget bill and consistent calls to reduce state spending, said he wasn't trying to start a political argument in pointing out the language he discovered in the constitution.

"Believe it or not, this wasn't about causing problems, about some political angle," he said. "This is about reading the constitution and saying, 'Oh my goodness, there's an issue here."

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