Delaware lawmakers did less business than usual this year

DOVER — In 2017, after failing to pass a budget before the start of a new fiscal year, the Delaware General Assembly entered into a brief “extraordinary” session.

If that was extraordinary, what will they call 2020?

This year’s legislative session was derailed in March by\ COVID-19, a once-in-a-lifetime happenin,g that quickly pushed aside thoughts about gun control, marijuana legalization, a minimum wage hike and basically everything else.

Lawmakers met as scheduled in January, the first month of the second leg of the 150th General Assembly, before breaking for the annual February budget hearings.

The chambers were set to reconvene March 17, but as Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, put it Tuesday, “And then something happened. We went from February to March. Everything changed.”

That something came on March 11, when Delaware announced its first confirmed coronavirus case.

Legislative leaders quickly postponed the resumption of session a week before suspending it indefinitely. The state capitol was and remains closed.

Over the ensuing nearly three months, legislators focused on constituent services, trying to help Delawareans deal with the crisis before returning (in a fashion) in late May.

For the first time in the General Assembly’s august history, the chambers approved virtual meetings. Lawmakers participated from their home offices or similar locations, with a few staffers in the Legislative Hall to keep things running smoothly. The House speaker and minority leader took part from the House chamber, but no senators were in the capitol.

Unlike a normal June, lawmakers focused pretty much solely on the budget bills, COVID relief and a few racial justice measures. Ultimately, despite a big drop in revenue, the General Assembly passed a budget without cutting services or state employee pay or hours.

The operating budget, the largest in state history, totals $4.52 billion, a jump of 1.6%. However, the $708 million capital budget marks an 18% drop from the fiscal year ended June 30.

Grant-in-aid for nonprofits comes to $54.4 million, a very slight decrease from the prior $55 million allocation.

In a typical year, June is a hectic whirlwind, especially in even-numbered years as lawmakers scramble to pass their preferred legislative proposals before the measures die at the end of the month.

The legislature holds multi-year sessions broken up into two legs, with members meeting from January through the end of June. Session begins in odd-numbered years and ends in even-numbered years, concluding a few months before the next election.

During the second leg, all bills still making their way through the legislative process when lawmakers part for the final time are considered dead. That means supporters of causes like continued criminal justice reform and greater clean water investment will have to try again next year, after a new General Assembly is sworn in.

Lawmakers were set to meet for 43 days this year. They didn’t hit that total, gathering in person and convening through the internet nine times apiece.

Controversial proposals dealing with marijuana legalization, reinstatement of the death penalty, same-day voter registration, an increase in the minimum wage and gun control, some of which probably would have at least seen legislative debate this year, were among the many things left in the coronavirus’ wake.

Although all of those highly political proposals still had hurdles to overcome — none had moved past the first chamber — no one could have predicted six months ago the bills wouldn’t even get a chance.

In particular, the House appeared set to pass a bill that would ban “ghost guns,” homemade firearms considered to be untraceable because they lack key identifying markings, after returning from break in March. That went by the wayside, courtesy of coronavirus.

Most, if not all, of the bills should be refiled in 2021. Only time will tell if supporters have better luck then.

“Yet again, Delaware has passed on an opportunity to reduce the violence related to the illicit market, reduce unnecessary police contact and deprivation of liberty for cannabis consumers, and reallocate law enforcement resources to fighting crime instead of prosecuting broadly socially acceptable conduct,” Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network President Zoe Patchell wrote in an email. “Passing legalization this year, in particular, would have started the process of establishing a taxed and well-regulated market to replace the currently thriving illicit market and laid the foundation for the creation of lucrative small business opportunities, well-paying jobs, and increased tax revenue to aid in the pandemic recovery.  

“Cannabis legalization is supported by over 60% of Delaware citizens, and our hope is that next year, the legislature will listen to their constituency, objective facts and science; rather than propaganda and a handful of well-funded special interest groups who largely financially benefit from the continuation of prohibition, and finally put an end to this failed, harmful policy.”