Posted: July 1, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

As the hour got later and the mood sillier on the last night of the 2003 legislative session, three larger-than-life cutouts materialized in the state House of Representatives -- cardboard dolls of George Bush, Elvis and Humphrey Bogart.

As stiff as they were, they were about as animated as it got as Monday turned into Tuesday and the Delaware General Assembly called it a year.

Legislative Hall veterans were saying this final night was the dullest ever, a bust when it came to the power plays, bottlenecks of bills, flaring egos and tempers, daunting workloads, hard feelings and other assorted atmospherics that usually churn the rush to recess.

Some years the July 4th fireworks seem like a comedown from the June 30th political pyrotechnics, but not this time. Perhaps the lawmakers instinctively were afraid to. In precarious economic times for almost every state, when the finances could have cratered, the legislators quietly got a budget bill and tax package out of the way last week to tamp down the chances of riling the voters.

"No money, no monkey business, no machinations," said Transportation Secretary Nathan Hayward III. "No thrills, no chills, but safe arrival."

It turned Dover into a mutual admiration society. "It's been a good year," Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a first-term Democrat, said in a post-midnight press conference. "Democrats and Republicans, Senate and House, they have done an outstanding job."

Few bills of significance were on the last-night agenda, although the lawmakers did approve a series of revenue-raising measures for Wilmington and medical-malpractice legislation that represented a compromise between doctors and lawyers. Otherwise, there was little going on.

"Everything's done. We're literally killing time," said Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, the House's Democratic minority leader.

Also killed was the momentum for a gay equal-rights bill, called by its number as House Bill 99. The House approved it last week in dramatic fashion, with two representatives sick but staying to supply the final two votes for passage and send it to the Senate. Its backers had visions of getting it through that chamber, too, but it was not to be.

In a slick, subterranean gambit, the legislation was left to languish in a pile of bills never even filed -- the senatorial version of boxing's "long count." In addition, the senators stayed on the floor, never breaking for the party caucuses that the backers needed to push for getting it introduced and debated.

Despite being stalled, House Bill 99 still is alive until the end of the two-year legislative term next year. Minner, who has called for its adoption, said she will talk to the Senate leadership about considering it perhaps as soon as a special session in August or early September, when senators return to Dover to vote on judicial nominations.

With the legislative agenda almost an afterthought, the focus of June 30 became the social agenda. John F. Brady, a Republican House attorney who is also the Sussex County recorder of deeds, sprang for a picnic outside one side of Legislative Hall. Agriculture Secretary Michael T. Scuse and Personnel Director Lisa Blunt-Bradley hosted a barbeque from their own pockets on the other side. Lobbyist Robert L. Byrd brought a pickup-truck full of beer and wine.

Even the Senate, where partisanship often runs high, dined together, majority Democrats and minority Republicans alike at the Lobby House on Loockerman Street. The Senate is still the Senate, however, and one member noted wittily there were an "A" table, a "B" table and a "C" table -- for Democrats who are "in," Democrats who are "out" and Republicans.

The House won bragging rights for the night by being the first chamber to quit, about 12 minutes after midnight, beating the Senate by nearly 20 minutes. No one could remember the House ever leaving earlier than the Senate, and a great cheer went up from the representatives when it did.

By the time the House left, it had gotten slap happy. Republican Rep. David H. Ennis, called on to offer a final prayer, prayed that the House indeed would quit first. Republican Rep. Robert J. Valihura Jr., eying the Bush-Elvis-Bogart cutouts, merrily protested Bogie's presence to the leadership with a reference to one of the session's most controversial matters.

"One of those stooges is smoking. Would you ask him to refrain, please?" Valihura quipped.

A final mark of how smoothly the last night went was the "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" poster in the governor's office. The individual tails all bear a face of a state official, and those who are out of gubernatorial favor wind up affixed to the donkey.

On this night the donkey had no tail at all, so there was no tale to tell.