Out of session since late January, General Assembly will meet virtually

DOVER — The Delaware General Assembly, which has not met in full session since the end of January, plans to convene virtually beginning May 26. Legislative leaders said Thursday the chambers will conduct business over the video calling platform Zoom, with those proceedings also livestreamed on YouTube and Facebook.

“From the moment we first postponed session in March, legislative leaders said our priority was protecting the health of legislators, staff and the public. That priority has not changed,” said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat. “During this State of Emergency, we have worked with and through the governor’s office to implement many of the policies we normally would have passed through legislation.

“But we also have been working on how the General Assembly can resume session during this public health crisis. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as setting up a video conference call. We have to lay everything out carefully so that we are prepared and can function as normally as possible when we reconvene. We believe we have a responsible plan to share with the public.”

The House of Representatives will gather virtually May 26 and approve a resolution authorizing online meetings. The Senate will vote on the measure the next day through Zoom.

Pete Schwartzkopf

Additional virtual session days will be announced in the coming weeks.

A link to the YouTube account will be available on the legislature’s website, legis.delaware.gov, in the future.

Both Rep. Schwartzkopf and Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, said their Republican counterparts are onboard with the plan, and legislative leaders on Thursday sent a letter outlining the process to all lawmakers.

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 been in session for nine days in 2020 and have missed 21, with 13 still to come in June.

Hundreds of people, ranging from legislators to lobbyists to reporters and more, enter Legislative Hall on a typical session day, which 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.

Although high-profile bills dealing with marijuana legalization, gun control and the reinstatement of the death penalty, among other subjects, were expected to see some attention this year, the virus outbreak means they will probably have to wait until 2021. Instead, legislators will be concentrating on the “money bills” — the operating budget, capital spending plan and grant-in-aid funding.

“Anything past this is gravy,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

A schedule for the Joint Finance Committee will be announced in the near future, with the 12 members likely to meet in early June. Unlike the full legislature, they 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.

Lawmakers are required to approve a spending plan by July, the start of a new fiscal year, and they currently have to overcome a precipitous drop in revenues as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

As of April, revenues for the current fiscal year had fallen from about $4.61 billion to $4.32 billion and from $4.69 billion to $4.45 billion for the upcoming year, completely wiping out December’s estimate of extra money. Updated figures are scheduled to be released next week by a state panel.

JFC will have to grapple with that decrease, which means painful cuts could be coming.

The committee held its first round of hearings in February and would normally begin meeting next week for what’s known as the budget markup process.

“Thankfully, we have the technology to hold this unprecedented session in a way that will protect the public’s health while also allowing the public to follow the proceedings in a way that’s very similar to how we conduct business at Legislative Hall,” Sen. McBride said. “Our main priority will be to ensure our state agencies can continue to provide the vital services our residents depend on. That means passing a balanced budget that accounts for a sharp decline in revenue and the cost of protecting the health of our most vulnerable residents.”

Dave McBride

Many issues around virtual meetings have already been worked out, and lawmakers plan to do test runs in the next week or so. Some legislators, particularly those in central and western Sussex County, may have poor internet connections, making it important to get the kinks squared out ahead of time, Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

Employees from the Department of Technology & Information will monitor the Zoom calls to step in should technical difficulties arise.

The chambers will have the option of entering in a special session after June should there be unresolved issues, although Rep. Schwartzkopf doesn’t expect that to be necessary.

While some Delawareans, including a few members of the legislature, have wondered why lawmakers aren’t meeting, leaders from all four caucuses have expressed a desire not to rush things. They concluded early on there was no sense in convening at Legislative Hall while instructing others to stay home.

Delaware’s state of emergency gives the governor broad powers to implement policies that would normally require legislative approval, and top lawmakers have been speaking to Gov. John Carney frequently. Many of the orders he has issued were developed on the advice of lawmakers, such as prohibiting utilities from cutting services off and expanding absentee voting.

Some legislators also believe they can do more good in their communities.

“We’re as busy now as we ever were with constituents,” Sen. McBride said, describing the “email blizzard” he wakes up to every day.

Rep. Schwartzkopf noted Thursday lawmakers are only able to meet virtually because they fortuitously approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 allowing emergency measures in the event of “enemy attack, terrorism, disease, accident, or other natural or man-made disaster.” That change stemmed from a 2015 fire that came close to burning up the whole capitol, which prompted lawmakers to expand the contingency plans.

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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