Senate holds first virtual meeting

DOVER — The state Senate on Wednesday approved a resolution authorizing the chamber to meet virtually. The vote follows the House approving the same measure the day before.

Because of COVID-19, the full General Assembly has not met in person in four months. This week’s online sessions represent the first time the General Assembly has gathered outside Legislative Hall since the building opened in 1933.

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.

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

Voting from their home offices or similar locations Wednesday, senators approved the resolution 17-4. It passed the House 39-2 on Tuesday. All opposition came from Republicans, with Sens. Colin Bonini of Dover, Dave Lawson of Marydel, Bryant Richardson of Seaford and Dave Wilson of Bridgeville casting votes against.

“I feel it’s a bad way to do business,” Sen. Lawson said. “There’s many in the 15th Senatorial District as well as others that don’t have access to the internet and they can’t see what we are doing and they don’t have the ability, there’s no way to reach out to them, particularly in the Amish community, and I’m not comfortable with passing a resolution to circumvent a law on the excuse that there’s no space available. This set a precedent that can and will be abused in the future, much like our state of emergency legislation now.”

Dave Lawson

Calling the resolution unconstitutional, Sen. Wilson questioned why lawmakers can’t wait until the ban on large gatherings is lifted on June 1 to meet in Legislative Hall. Such events, however, will only be allowed outside — there’s still a 10-person restriction for most indoor gatherings.

“This particular resolution has been vetted by all of the lawyers in all four caucuses and we worked very closely with the leadership in the development of the resolution,” Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, said.

Wednesday’s session largely went smoothly, although a few legislators forgot to unmute themselves at times and the start of an earlier committee hearing was delayed slightly because one member was not present.

Before the vote on the resolution, members of the Senate Executive Committee met for about an hour to approve nominees for judicial positions and the secretary of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security. Senators unanimously approved the nominees, some of whom had been waiting for several months.

Among them is Nathaniel McQueen, the superintendent of the Delaware State Police who is moving up to the department’s top job after the former officeholder moved to the Department of Justice in March.

“I couldn’t think of a finer choice to head up the department,” Sen. McBride said of Mr. McQueen, who has spent more than 31 years in law enforcement.

While the House speaker and minority leader were present in that chamber Tuesday, just a few key staffers were actually in the Senate for Wednesday’s session.

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. They have met in person nine times this year, with all of those coming in January.

A screenshot of the Senate Executive Committee hearing held through Zoom Wednesday. (Delaware State News)

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 over the next month, chiefly 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.

Unlike the full chambers, 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 the hearings as well, but otherwise the building will remain locked.

The legislature is required to approve a spending plan by July, the start of a new fiscal year.


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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