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Spending, criminal justice highlight legislative session

June 30, 2021 GMT

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Delaware lawmakers wrapped up this year’ legislative session on Wednesday. Here’s a look at some of the highlights:

SPENDING

Buoyed by rosy revenue forecasts that belied overly pessimistic estimates from early during the coronavirus epidemic last year, Delaware lawmakers approved record-high spending bills for the fiscal year starting Thursday.

This year’s general fund operating budget totals $4.77 billion, an increase of about 5% over the current year’s budget. A $221 million “supplemental” budget bill for one-time expenditures brings the increase over the current year’s $4.5 billion operating budget to more than 10%.

The $1.3 billion capital budget for construction, transportation and economic development projects is almost double the current year’s $708 million budget and is $460 million more than what Democratic Gov. John Carney proposed in January.

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Lawmakers also approved $63 million in grants to community organizations, nonprofit groups and volunteer fire companies, up from about $54.5 million this year.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM

Lawmakers approved a host of police accountability and criminal justice reform bills in the wake of nationwide unrest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.

Among the legislation is a bill mandating that the use of force by a police officer or a civilian, whether lethal or nonlethal, be “reasonable” in order to be justified under the law.

Another bill requires that police record interrogations of anyone in their custody, with certain limited exceptions.

Lawmakers also approved bills making it easier for people to have their criminal records expunged and prohibiting the prosecution of children under 12, except for the most serious charges, including murder and rape. They also passed legislation prohibiting police from releasing the name or photograph of a juvenile suspect unless the juvenile is charged with a violent felony and the release of the information is needed to protect public safety.

MINIMUM WAGE

Lawmakers voted along party lines in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly to approve a bill raising Delaware’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025.

Delaware’s current minimum wage is $9.25 per hour. The legislation increases the minimum wage by 13.5% to $10.50 effective Jan. 1, followed by similar annual double-digit percentage increases to $11.75 per hour in January 2023, $13.25 per hour in January 2024, and $15 per hour in January 2025.

Legislative analysts estimate that the bill will cost taxpayers an additional $3.7 million in fiscal 2024 for state employee wages, not counting resulting salary and wage compression issues.

House Democrats rejected a GOP amendment requiring annual reports on the statewide economic impact of the minimum wage increase.

MARIJUANA

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After a failed attempt at legalization in 2019, Democrats again were unable to muster enough support to hold a floor vote on a bill allowing the recreational use of marijuana by adults.

Like the previous version, this year’s bill faced an uphill battle, given opposition by Democratic Gov. John Carney and representatives of the law enforcement, business and medical communities.

The legislation’s prospects were further dimmed by the inclusion of language establishing a fund to provide grants and low-interest to “social equity” applicants for marijuana business licenses. That term was used to describe applicants who would be given special consideration because they live in areas with high rates of marijuana arrests and convictions, or because they have personal or family histories of convictions or juvenile adjudications for marijuana offenses.

The provision of government funding for social equity applicants meant the bill needed a three-fourths supermajority, making passage extremely unlikely.

GUNS

Efforts by Senate Democrats to impose new restrictions on gun ownership in Delaware were thwarted in the Democrat-led House.

The Senate approved a bill banning magazines capable of holding more than 17 rounds and requiring existing owners of such magazines to surrender them to the state. The bill was overhauled in the House after lawmakers realized that it would have outlawed virtually all magazines sold with modern semiautomatic firearms. The House version allows the sale and possession of magazines commonly included with new handguns and rifles while criminalizing the possession of an after-market, large-capacity magazine while committing a felony. The Senate declined to act on the amended bill.

A Senate-passed bill requiring anyone in Delaware wanting to buy a handgun to first be fingerprinted, undergo an approved training course and obtain permission from the state, remained stalled in a House committee as the session ended.

PLASTIC BAGS

A law prohibiting stores in Delaware from providing thin “single-use” plastic bags at the checkout counter and requiring them to provide only paper bags or thicker, “reusable” plastic bags, took effect in January.

The law mandated that reusable plastic bags be at least 2.25 mils thick and capable of being reused at least 125 uses.

But Democratic lawmakers were surprised that people were using the thicker, reusable bags just as they did the thinner bags, throwing them in the trash or tossing them away as litter. They accused store owners of exploiting a “loophole” by providing the thicker bags, even though they were doing what they were told.

Lawmakers responded with legislation requiring that reusable plastic bags be at least 10 mils thick, a thickness usually associated with plastic sheeting used in construction and agricultural applications. They then scrapped that idea and voted to ban plastic grocery bags entirely starting July 1, 2022. That legislation cleared the Senate by a single vote.