Delaware lawmakers wrap up this year’s legislative session

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Delaware lawmakers wrapped up the year’s legislative session with a flurry of action on secondary bills Thursday, after a successful push by majority Democrats to enact higher-profile measures tightening gun ownership laws and expanding abortion access.

Gov. John Carney put an exclamation point on the session’s last day, signing a package of gun control measures that fellow Democrats rammed through the General Assembly after recent mass shootings in other states.

Those bills include bans on several types of semiautomatic firearms and on magazines capable of holding more than 17 rounds, and raising the age to purchase most firearms from 18 to 21. Other new laws will limit the immunity of gun manufacturers and dealers from lawsuits, return control of background checks for gun purchases from the federal government to the state, and ban the use of devices that convert handguns into fully automatic weapons.

“This historic gun safety legislation would not have been possible without the dedication of advocates who demanded action across our state,” Carney said in a statement after the bill signing. “I’d like to thank members of the General Assembly for working to pass these bills before the end of session.”

Democrats also passed several measures to ensure access to abortion in Delaware, even in advance of the Supreme Court ruling striking down Roe v. Wade. In 2017, Delaware became the first state following the election of Donald Trump to codify the right to an abortion. A bill signed by Carney, a Catholic, guarantees the unfettered right to an abortion before a fetus is deemed “viable.” The law also allows abortion after fetal viability if, in a doctor’s “good faith medical judgment,” abortion is necessary for the protection of the woman’s life or health, or if there is a reasonable likelihood that the fetus cannot survive without extraordinary medical measures.

In April, Carney signed a bill allowing physician assistants and advanced practice registered nurses to prescribe abortion-inducing medications including mifepristone and misoprostol. Lawmakers followed that up with a bill signed by Carney this week that allows physician assistants, certified nurse practitioners and nurse midwifes to perform abortions before viability. The new law also includes various legal protections for abortion providers and patients, including out-of-state residents receiving abortions in Delaware. Those provisions include protections from civil actions in other states relating to the termination of a pregnancy, and the protection of individuals from extradition to other states for criminal charges related to terminating a pregnancy.

On Wednesday, Democrats introduced a measure to enshrine the right to an abortion in Delaware’s state constitution.

Democrats also pushed through measures this year to make it easier for people to vote, approving same-day registration, with no photo ID required, and vote-by-mail bills. Each bill received a single GOP vote in the Democrat-controlled legislature. The vote-by-mail bill received final approval Wednesday, less than three weeks after it was introduced.

Democrats had less success in trying to legalize recreational use of marijuana by adults and to create a state-run cannabis industry. House lawmakers failed earlier this month to override Carney’s veto of the legalization bill, which was a prerequisite for establishing a state-licensed and regulated marijuana industry.

Meanwhile, with state coffers flush, lawmakers approved recording-setting spending plans for the fiscal year that starts Friday.

On Tuesday, Carney signed a $5.1 billion operating budget, an increase of almost 6% over the fiscal 2022 budget of $4.77 billion. The new budget includes pay increases for state employees ranging 2% to 9%, as well as a $500 one-time bonus. The operating budget is in addition to a $378.6 million “one-time supplemental appropriation” that includes funding for paid family leave and a variety of other initiatives.

Lawmakers on Wednesday also gave final approval to a record $1.46 billion capital budget for construction and transportation projects, up from the record $1.35 billion capital budget approved last year. The new capital budget includes $331.4 million for transportation projects, $285.2 million for school construction, and $90 million for “community reinvestment and redevelopment.” It also includes $10 million for the School Safety and Security Fund.

The final element of the spending package is a grant-in-aid bill doling out taxpayer money for community organizations, nonprofit groups and volunteer fire companies. The grants bill, approved Thursday night, totals a record $69.4 million, up from last year’s record total of $63 million.

Among the other bills receiving final approval Thursday were measures mandating statewide mental health educational programs in all grades in district and charter schools, establishing mental health services units for middle schools, and requiring health insurance plans to cover annual behavioral health well checks.

Lawmakers also gave final approval to the first leg of a proposed constitutional amendment under which criminal offenders other than those charged with murder could be held without bail. The measure also must receive two-thirds approval by both chambers in the next General Assembly.

Under the legislation, offenders charged with certain felony offenses, which would be determined at a later date by the legislature, could be held without bail under certain circumstances. Supporters of the measure say it is an effort to balance the rights of criminal defendants with the need to protect public safety.

Thursday’s vote came exactly one year after Carney signed a bill requiring more people charged with serious crimes to pay cash bail in order to be released from custody pending trial. That bill established secured cash bail as the baseline to be used by judges in determining pretrial release conditions for defendants charged with any of 38 specified offenses.

It also included a provision stating that it would expire upon enactment of the constitutional amendment allowing bail to be denied entirely for crimes other than murder.