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Delaware lawmakers end session with flurry of bills

Delaware lawmakers tackled dozens of measures both large and small before bringing down the gavel on this year's legislative session early Monday.

House and Senate members convened Sunday at 4 p.m. and work into the wee hours of the fiscal year that began Monday.

Democratic Gov. John Carney signed a $4.45 billion operating budget for fiscal 2020 on Tuesday, but House lawmakers did not give final, unanimous approval to an $863 million capital budget for construction and transportation projects until late Sunday night.

The House recessed about 12:30 a.m. Monday after passing the final budget bill, a $55 million grants package for nonprofit groups, community organizations and volunteer fire companies. The Senate approved the measure about 30 minutes later, but not before 79-year-old Democratic Sen. Harris McDowell III, the longest-serving member of the General Assembly in Delaware history, stunned colleagues by indicating that he plans to retire following next year's session, after more than 42 years in office. Fellow senators gave a tearful McDowell a sustained standing ovation.

The Senate called it quits around 1:10 a.m. Carney signed the capital budget and grants bill shortly before 1:45 a.m. after thanking McDowell, a longtime co-chair of the powerful budget-writing committee, for his service.

Looking back on the session, Carney said earlier that he was most pleased that his administration was able to persuade lawmakers to set aside a new cushion of unspent funds, roughly $125 million, in addition to the state's "rainy day" fund, which totals about $250 million and has never been tapped because of strict limitations on how it can be spent.

Carney, who noted that state government expenses are growing at a faster rate than revenues, said the new reserve account will be available when the economy inevitably softens and revenues decline.

"We'll have a reserve fund that will enable us to get over those tough spots as opposed to cutting important programs and raising taxes," he said.

Carney said he considered the reserve fund to be his biggest win of this year's legislative session, which began in early January, along with tens of millions of dollars in new funding targeted at school students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students from non-English speaking homes.

On the other hand, Carney expressed disappointment that lawmakers failed to act on several Democratic gun control measures, including bills to ban certain semiautomatic firearms deemed "assault weapons" by gun foes, along with large-capacity magazines. Democrats had even proposed requiring any Delawarean wanting to buy a firearm to first obtain permission from the government in the form of a state-issued "purchaser card," which would require being fingerprinted.

Carney had proposed a ban on so-called "ghost guns" that are made from parts that don't require serial numbers or are made from plastic and might be invisible to metal detectors, but legislation to implement such a ban was never introduced.

"I think that's something we can do in the future," he said.

Among the bills approved on the final day were several criminal justice reform measures, including decriminalizing marijuana possession by juveniles and underage possession or consumption of alcohol. Those bills were among 17 criminal justice reform measures introduced this year with the support of Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Jennings. Eleven of the proposals were passed by the General Assembly.

"We had bipartisan support for most of the measures," noted House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach.

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