Delaware Senate OKs discrimination bill in virtual session

DOVER — The state Senate met virtually Tuesday for the second time in its history. It approved 14 uncontroversial bills, including the first leg of a constitutional amendment forbidding discrimination based on race or ethnicity.

Because of COVID-19, the full General Assembly has not met in person in four months, including a three-month break without any action. The chambers began conducting meetings virtually at the end of May, although legislators are still convening less frequently and focusing mostly on the mandatory spending plans and some COVID relief measures.

Sen. Darius Brown

The Senate first met virtually May 27.

These 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 (Senate) and bit.ly/2LYZf8G (House), though links are also 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.

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.

Tuesday, the Senate unanimously passed legislation that seeks to outlaw acts of racial bias and, by a 15-6 margin, approved a bill that would allow public meetings to be held virtually when the COVID crisis abates. The bill on racial equality must pass the General Assembly again in 2021 or 2022 after being approved by the House this year because it amends the Delaware Constitution.

“Dismantling systemic racism in Delaware must begin with our founding document from which all other laws in our state are derived,” Sen. Darius Brown, a Wilmington Democrat who introduced the bill, said in a statement.

“Once this process is complete, our Constitution will state clearly, once and for all, that all people – no matter their skin color and no matter their backgrounds – are guaranteed the basic rights and dignity that have been promised to us for generations. America’s original sin can only be addressed through acts of social justice and this is only the first step in the long road to redemption that lays ahead.”

Objection on the electronic meeting bill focused on poor internet and telephone service in some parts of the state, particularly western Sussex and Kent counties.

The chamber also approved a dozen straightforward, mostly technical bills together with no debate.

Senators voted from their home offices or similar locations, with only a few key staffers in the capitol to keep things running. There were a few technical hiccups, chiefly audio issues and senators occasionally forgetting to unmute themselves, but the session appeared to proceed smoothly.

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, the chambers have met virtually on four occasions. They convened in person nine times this year, with all of those coming in January.

Budget hearings have been held virtually this month as well. The legislature is required to approve a spending plan by July, the start of a new fiscal year.

The House is set to meet Thursday through Zoom. On its agenda are several sure-to-be-passed technical bills, as well as a measure expanding absentee voting by mail through the rest of the year.