In surprise move, death penalty bill goes to House chamber

DOVER — Thursday was the State of the State Address, but the speech was far from the only thing that had Legislative Hall buzzing. The address ended at 3, and by 5, the House Democratic caucus had announced the death penalty repeal bill will be released from committee eight months after its initial hearing, and the Senate had passed bills lowering the corporate income tax and apologizing for slavery.

In a surprise news release, the majority caucus announced Senate Bill 40 will be heard on the floor Thursday. The bill, which had languished in the House Judiciary Committee since May, would repeal the death penalty. It has already passed the Senate.

Committee Chairman Rep. Larry Mitchell, D-Elsmere, decided to sign the bill out of committee despite his personal disapproval. His vote gave the legislation the six necessary votes to send it to the full chamber.

“As a retired New Castle County Police officer, I am personally opposed to repealing capital punishment,” Rep. Mitchell said in a statement. “However, it is clear to me that this issue deserves to be presented to all the members of the House for debate and an up-or-down vote. Some of my fellow colleagues in the Democratic caucus want to see this bill on the House floor, and I agree with them.”

Main House sponsor Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, had said he planned to suspend the rules in an effort to bring the bill to the floor.

“I feel strongly that capital punishment has no place in our criminal justice system today,” he said in a statement. “I hope that my colleagues will have a healthy and civil debate on this important issue.”

Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, scheduled the vote for Thursday.

The bill has inspired a great deal of discussion and activism, and some supporters of repeal hailed the news afterward.

In the other chamber, senators voted on two very different but much-talked-about proposals. Eight days after the House passed legislation issuing a formal apology for slavery and changing the corporate income tax structure, the Senate did the same.

The slavery apology, which Gov. Markell called on the Senate to approve in his speech earlier in the day, passed 18-3. Sens. Colin Bonini, R-Camden, David Lawson, R-Marydel, and Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, voted against it.

Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, said the effects of slavery are still felt today.

“I could stand up here for hours today and talk about what it means to be an African-American in America today,” she said, emotion in her voice. “Well, you’re still not equal, and you still don’t have all the opportunities that other people have. And I can tell you about the history, how I watched (police) turns dogs and hoses on children trying to get an education.”

Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, took a similar stance, citing inequities in the legal system. Some civil activists, scholars, politicians and others have said black men are victims of mass incarceration — the “new Jim Crow.”

Sen. Peterson argued lawmakers have a responsibility to apologize on behalf of the state for actions supported by the Delaware government in the past.

A few, such as Sen. Bonini, disagreed.

“I have the privilege of representing 40,000 people and all sort of folks in Delaware, and those 40,000 people had nothing to do with the terrible, terrible crime that slavery is. Their parents didn’t, and their grandparents didn’t,” he said.

After that vote, senators passed the corporate income tax bill, known by supporters as the Delaware Competes Act. By 20-0 vote, with Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, abstaining, the Senate sent it to the governor’s desk for signature.

The act would change the state’s corporate income tax, which is currently based on a company’s total sales, payroll and property holdings in Delaware relative to its nationwide business operations. The proposal would determine it solely by the percentage of sales in Delaware, lowering the overall rate for most companies.

Additionally, it would reduce the number of tax filings for businesses and lessen the tax burden on small companies.

Supporters hope the bill incentivizes companies to settle or invest in Delaware. Thirty-seven other states use the single-base method, versus nine that utilize the three-pronged approach.

“This is benefiting corporations all over the state and this is a great tool for bringing industry, large corporations, large employers into the state of Delaware,” President Pro Tempore Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, said.

Sen. Townsend took issue with the projected $49 million hit to the state over the first three years once the changes go into effect. Although he is one of many co-sponsors, he said supporting the bill would be reckless.

“Without an established plan for how we will pay for this, I cannot support this legislation. The jury is out on whether this will stimulate our economy or keep a major company here,” he said on the floor.

Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, and Sen. Bonini both took the chance to call for further changes to the casino industry, which is struggling in Delaware. Thousands of jobs and millions of dollars are at risk, Sen. Bushweller said.

Some have alleged the bill was introduced as a reaction to chemical giant DuPont and its spinoff Chemours moving headquarters and cutting jobs, but Sen. Blevins said that is not the case.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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