Local legislators sprint for the finish

Walking into Legislative Hall in the state capital in the last few days of the legislative session can leave visitors with the impression that someone just poured hotcakes onto an acre-wide griddle — and they’ve all finished cooking on one side.

People wander hallways and cluster in lobbies, hoping for an opportunity to bend the ear of their favorite senator or representative, and remind them why this or that bill is so incredibly vital (or why its so vital that it be voted down).

In House and Senate chambers, clerks shuffle the stacks of new legislation into thick binders, in preparation for caucus (Democrats and Republicans break for closed-doors debate) and then floor debate — and maybe, a vote.

Some of the bills have been significantly reworded, and appear as substitutes. Others have picked up a few amendments — they’re finally ready.

The bells start ringing back in the offices, and pretty soon someone wanders through — “We need representatives (or senators) on the floor!”

The legislators break away from whatever constituents they might have buzzing around their offices at the moment. They head for the big room and there, deep within the classical architecture and décor and carefully described courtesy and protocol, they hustle for their seats.

The bill number is announced by a placard at the head of the room — one clerk reads the title, another calls the roll. A yes here, a no there, someone hurries in. Their vote is changed from absent to either yes or no — and then maybe they stay for the next vote, or duck out again, and repeat.

In this final week of the session, it is becoming necessary to order food in. Assistants distribute sandwiches among the pew-like rows of desks around the chamber floor.

Yet all throughout this chaotic scene, it seems a window opened onto the time, preparation and careful consideration behind each brief exposition in support or opposition — even behind each simple yes or no.

And there’s a sense that, despite the legislators’ duty and responsibility to more names than they could ever hope to remember, the crowd is buoyed, rather than burdened, by their charge.

All that being said, here’s but a sampling from June 28 — just another busy night in Dover in the final week for the 143rd General Assembly.

• Sen. George Howard Bunting’s Senate Bill (SB) 102, passed through the house and now heads for Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s desk. The bill facilitates the sale of “The Old Nanticoke Indian School” to the Nanticoke Indian Association, for $1. (The property must be used for the advancement or preservation of the history, culture and tribal heritage of the Nanticoke Indians.) There are plans for remodeling and renovation for a new community computer center.

• Rep. Gerald Hocker’s House Resolution (HR) 32 passed by unanimous vote. It sets up a taskforce to check for traces of harmful lead in school and child-care facilities’ drinking water.

• Bunting’s (SB) 203 passed unanimously, headed for the House. It states that one year after its enactment, no manufactured homes shall be installed other than by licensed manufactured home installers, and that installation must pass muster with a board certified inspector.

• Hocker’s HB 246 passed unanimously, headed for the Senate. It provides limited liability protection to doctors, nurses, dentists and dental hygienists who participate in church-sponsored health ministries. (This extends existing protections they enjoy while volunteering at non-profits.) Hocker said he’d modified a few words that caused objection in the Senate last year.

• In other business, House Substitute (HS) 1 for HB 211 went through the Senate on a 17-3 vote, en route the governor’s desk. It will allow veterans’, religious or charitable organizations, volunteer fire companies or fraternal societies to engage in no-limit, “Texas Hold’em” poker tournaments. Some voiced concerns about possible disputes that might accompany the $2,000 maximum cash prizes. No one younger than 21 will be able to participate, or even enter the room, during tournaments.

• HB 229, giving the Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs authority to shut down or restrict access to state land if an archaeological resource becomes threatened, passed unanimously and now heads to the Senate. The bill encompasses a major rework and reorganization of the code, and was prompted by confusion following events in Lewes last year, when a beach replenishment dredge plowed through archaeological resources just offshore.

• HB 170, with provisions for two new at-large (countywide) Sussex councilmanic seats, which voters would fill in 2006, passed 34 to 4, headed for the Senate, to join Hocker’s HB 143 (two new geographic districts, redistricted in 2007 and filled in 2008), which entered Senate committee on the last day of May.

• HB 280 entered the Transportation, Land Use and Infrastructure Committee. It would prohibit on-site community wastewater treatment systems in areas not designated for growth via: (1) local, state-certified, comprehensive plans, or (2) the Delaware Strategies for State Policies and Spending map. It would further require 4-acre lots as the minimum for subdivisions greater than five units not in growth areas, for individual on-site septic.