Delaware House holds first virtual session

Members of the House met Tuesday in virtual session for the first time. A few people, including the speaker and minority leader, were still in the chamber to keep things running smoothly, but everyone else chimed in remotely. (Submitted photo/House Democratic caucus)

DOVER — The Delaware of House of Representatives made history in just 20 minutes Tuesday. Members of the chamber took part in the first virtual legislative session in state history, yet another reminder of how COVID-19 has altered our world.

The chamber, which has not met in person in four months, convened briefly to approve a resolution allowing virtual sessions. The Senate will meet today to pass the same measure and to approve gubernatorial nominees for judgeships and the secretary of Safety and Homeland Security.

The meetings are conducted through Zoom and can be viewed live through the caucus’ Facebook pages or the chamber’s YouTube pages. The YouTube accounts can be reached at bit.ly/3c3xZ3H and bit.ly/2LYZf8G, though links will also be shared on the legislature’s website.

“We are making history today in Delaware,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, said.

“For more than 220 years, the General Assembly has met in person in our state’s capitol to conduct legislative business. The House and the Senate have considered tens of thousands of pieces of legislation during that time, ranging from the mundane to the profound.

“But today, we will consider one piece of legislation in a completely different manner. For the first time in Delaware history, a legislative body is meeting virtually. The coronavirus pandemic that has gripped our world has fundamentally changed our lives, and we are taking steps today to change with it.”

A shot of the chamber from the gallery above shows how unusually empty it was Tuesday.

Lawmakers took part from their home offices or other locations, with Rep. Schwartzkopf and Minority Leader Danny Short, a Seaford Republican, in the chamber as normal. There were a few technical issues, chiefly legislators not realizing they were muted, but the first virtual session appeared to go smoothly.

By a 39-2 vote, the House approved the resolution letting legislators suspend normal rules, such as requiring physical signatures on bills, to say nothing of meeting outside Legislative Hall for the first time since the building opened in 1933. Reps. Rich Collins, a Millsboro Republican, and Shannon Morris, a Republican from Camden-Wyoming, voted against it.

Delivering a brief statement before the vote, Rep. Collins said he feels the coronavirus response has gone too far and, more to the point, the resolution is unconstitutional.

“While it might be somewhat inconvenient, we could meet in person at auditoriums and gymnasiums in any school in this state or at Dover Downs. There are numerous facilities that would allow the social distancing that would make our members feel safe,” he said.

“This is the time when we, as elected representatives of our state, should show courage and leadership as our citizens begin the difficult process of getting back to normal.”

Rep. Schwartzkopf replied the resolution has been approved by numerous attorneys, including Republicans, and lawmakers took a vote.

Legislative Hall has been closed since March 12, the day after Delaware’s first confirmed coronavirus case was announced.

The full General Assembly normally meets about 45 times through the first six months of the calendar year before breaking until the following year. So far, lawmakers have missed 21 of the 43 regularly scheduled days.

Among those still present in the House chamber for the virtual session were House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, foreground, and chief clerk Rich Puffer, right.

They have met in person nine times this year, with all of those coming in January. Each chamber is expected to convene virtually just once a week, although the schedule is still being completed.

Hundreds of people, ranging from legislators to lobbyists to reporters and more, enter Legislative Hall on a typical session day, which, officials say, would create a dangerous environment should business continue as normal. That’s especially true considering around one-third of the building’s 62 members are at least 65 years old, meaning they fall into the high-risk category for COVID-19.

Lawmakers are expected to focus on just a few things: the “money” bills and COVID relief. That means proposals like legalizing marijuana and reinstating the death penalty that were expected to see debates in 2020 will probably have to wait until 2021.

The 12 members of the Joint Finance Committee will meet to review the governor’s January budget recommendations June 2 through June 9. Because that spending plan was produced in the pre-COVID time, legislators will have to make substantial changes to account for the projected $619 million loss in revenue for the current and upcoming fiscal years.

Lawmakers are required to approve a spending plan by July, the start of a new fiscal year.

Unlike the full legislature, JFC members will gather in the building but will do so wearing masks and keeping at least 6 feet from one another. Limited staff will be allowed in for JFC as well, but otherwise the building will remain locked.

The Senate Executive Committee will meet Wednesday at 3, followed by the full chamber at 4:30.

“We have a constitutional obligation to pass a balanced budget and I think we all want to be sure our state government is able to continue delivering the vital services our constituents depend on, particularly during the greatest public health crisis of our lifetime,” Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, said in a statement.

“We also have a moral obligation to protect the health and safety of the public, our staff and our colleagues by containing the spread of COVID-19. By undertaking this virtual session, we can successfully fulfill both responsibilities while also adding an extra layer of transparency by broadcasting video of our proceedings for the first time ever.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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