- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 1, 2014

DOVER, Del. (AP) - Delaware lawmakers approved a $10 million financial bailout for the state’s three casinos early Tuesday in one of the final acts of this year’s legislative session.

House lawmakers approved the bailout on a 27-10 vote just minutes before adjourning at about 3:30 a.m. The Senate, which finished a few minutes before the House, had approved the legislation last week.

The casinos have complained repeatedly that they are struggling with increased competition from neighboring states and have to share too much of their gambling revenue with the state.

Supporters of the bill touted it as an effort to save jobs in Delaware’s gambling industry, a key source of revenue for the state’s general fund. They also noted that the state has repeatedly increased its share of casino revenue since approving gambling in the mid-1990s.

“The revenue sharing arrangement no longer works in today’s saturated market,” said House sponsor Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna.

Critics said the casinos have not been forthcoming in opening up their books to state officials and noted that, even with the bailout, there are no guarantees the casinos won’t lay off workers.

“I hope the casinos show good faith and do not cut their work force,” said Rep. Dennis Williams, D-Wilmington, who withdrew an amendment that would have required the casinos to return the money if they reduced their work force by 3 percent or more.

With the exception of the casino bill, there was little drama on the final night of the session.

House lawmakers had given final approval last week to a $3.8 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that started Tuesday. The budget represents an increase in spending of 2.4 percent over the fiscal 2014 budget, with Medicaid and public education accounting for much of the increase. But lawmakers also approved a $500 pay increase for most state employees, effective Jan. 1, at a cost of about $22 million, less than the cost of Markell’s proposal for a 1 percent pay raise.

Lawmakers agreed with Markell to balance the budget by increasing the annual tax on limited liability companies and business partnerships, and by raising the minimum annual corporation franchise tax. They also went along with his proposal to use $40 million designated for transportation projects to balance the operating budget.

Lawmakers waited until after midnight Monday before approving a $421 million capital budget, which includes $155 million for transportation projects and about $200 million in new bond authorizations for school construction and other capital improvements.

Markell had proposed raising Delaware’s gas tax by 10 cents a gallon to boost spending on road and transportation projects by $100 million annually over five years, but lawmakers balked at the election-year proposal.

Similarly, lawmakers had no stomach for the governor’s proposal to impose an annual fee on Delaware households and businesses to pay for a comprehensive plan to clean up the state’s waterways, many of which are so polluted that they are subject to fish-consumption advisories and are not safe for swimming.

“I remain committed to addressing our transportation funding gap and what I believe to be the embarrassing condition of our waterways,” Markell said shortly before signing the budget bills at 4 a.m. “Both of those efforts will create jobs and economic opportunity immediately and in the long term.”

In addition to the operating and capital budgets, lawmakers also signed off on a $45 million package of grants for community organizations, volunteer fire companies and nonprofit groups. Republican lawmakers urged members of the joint finance committee to follow through on plans to strengthen oversight of recipients of the annual grants to ensure that the money they receive is spent for legitimate purposes.

A proposal introduced late in the session to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana was not brought up for a floor vote before lawmakers adjourned.

House members also adjourned without trying to resurrect a measure to abolish the death penalty. The measure failed to gain enough support to clear a House committee last year after winning Senate passage by a single vote.

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