Lawmakers announce unemployment bill ahead of Tuesday’s return

DOVER — The General Assembly announced legislation Monday that would help Delawareans who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Beginning Tuesday and set to be held virtually for at least the first three weeks, the 151st General Assembly could tackle a large number of issues, although COVID-19-relief figures to be first and foremost.

The bill filed Monday would exempt unemployment benefits paid in 2020 from Delaware state income tax, maintain the new employer tax rates at 2020 levels and waive the 13-week waiting period before the state could trigger extended benefits.

More than 100,000 Delawareans have filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic. The state’s Division of Unemployment Insurance paid out more than $965 million in 2020, compared to about $67 million in 2019.

As of November, 5.1% of residents were out of work, up from 4% 12 months prior.

Exempting unemployment benefits from state taxes would allow the Delawareans who filed for unemployment to keep a combined $21 million.

“Thousands of hard-working Delawareans have lost their jobs during the past year through no fault of their own. We owe it to those impacted by the pandemic to take whatever action we can to ease their burden,” main sponsor Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark, said in a statement.

Ed Osienski

“Exempting the unemployment benefits that have been a lifeline to so many families will mean that they aren’t blindsided when they file their state taxes this year, and we’re also taking steps to protect businesses so they aren’t penalized with higher taxes during the pandemic,” he added.

The measure also would extend the Department of Labor’s ability to issue emergency rules amending the Delaware Unemployment Insurance Code to deal with the effects of COVID-19 and implement federal programs providing unemployment benefits to respond to COVID-19. The General Assembly previously granted this authority, but it is slated to expire at the end of March. The bill would extend the authority until March 2022.

The measure also establishes the 2021 new employer assessment rate, average industry assessment rate and average construction industry assessment rate at the same rate as 2020 to avoid an increase in these rates as a result of the increase in unemployment claims due to COVID-19.

Maintaining the new employer tax rates at 2020 rates is expected to benefit more than 2,000 businesses, per the House Democratic caucus. Holding the new employer tax rate at 1.8% will save employers up to $264 per employee in 2021, while keeping the new construction employer tax rate at 2.3% will save up to $165 per worker in 2021, according to the Division of Unemployment Insurance.

“In the past year, we have significantly expanded unemployment benefits to support Delaware workers and families who have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis. We shouldn’t then turn around and tax workers on that income,” Gov. John Carney said in a statement. “That’s why I’m pleased to make this bill a priority when we return to legislative session this month. Thank you to members of the General Assembly for their partnership in supporting working Delaware families.”

The legislation has been assigned to the House Administration Committee.
Also Monday, the governor’s office revealed plans for next week’s inauguration. On Jan. 19 at 10 a.m., Gov. Carney and Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long will be officially sworn in for second terms. Due to the pandemic, the ceremony will be virtual.

It will be livestreamed at de.gov/inauguration.

The governor also confirmed his State of the State and budget proposal will be virtual. The address will take place Jan. 26, and Gov. Carney will unveil his spending plan Jan. 28.

GOP emergency order bill
Republicans are pushing legislation that would limit the governor’s authority to issue and renew state of emergency orders.

Delaware law gives the chief executive the ability to declare an emergency for up to 30 days, although it can be renewed indefinitely. Some Republican lawmakers have strongly objected to the current state of emergency and corresponding restrictions in place since March, arguing the legislature needs to have a voice in the process.

The bill, which has only Republican sponsors, would require a state of emergency that lasts for more than 30 days, as well as any modifications, to be approved by the General Assembly. The requirement could be waived if the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore agree the chambers cannot safely meet.

Rich Collins

“One of the strengths of this nation is that we have a three-part government — the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judiciary — with each reining-in the excesses of the others,” main sponsor Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, said in a statement.

“But that balance doesn’t exist during a state of emergency. It gives the governor and his executive branch agencies supreme authority to take actions that carry the weight of the law, but which citizens cannot impact. We need to fix this, so the people again have a say in how their government works.”