Lawmakers begin virtual session with many issues

DOVER — The 151st General Assembly will kick off in unprecedented fashion this week. For the first time, lawmakers will be sworn in virtually, with the coronavirus pandemic preventing legislators from meeting in person.

While a few Republicans have supported meeting in Legislative Hall, leadership has emphasized there is no way to safely do so, and so both chambers plan for at least January sessions to be held over Zoom. Meetings can be viewed on YouTube at the Delaware State Senate channel (bit.ly/2WmNCOl) and the Delaware House of Representatives feed (bit.ly/3hXvapy).

The General Assembly will begin meeting Tuesday, with legislators taking part from their homes or offices. Committees will meet virtually twice a week instead of the usual once a week, enabling legislators to prepare for in-person floor debates on measures.

While it’s unclear exactly when lawmakers will convene in the state capitol, which has been closed for 10 months, some are hoping it could be as soon as March. The spread of COVID-19 and the progress of vaccinating Delawareans will determine when the General Assembly can return, and it’s possible the entire session could be held online.

“I long for the day when we’re back in the building, when people can stop you in the hallway and tell you what they think about a bill,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said.

Regardless of when legislators can convene in person, January is sure to be an unusual month. Gov. John Carney and Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long will be sworn in virtually on Jan. 19, and the following day the General Assembly will not meet to ensure lawmakers can watch the presidential inauguration.

The governor will deliver his annual State of the State and budget presentation virtually for the first time later in the month.
The chamber rules set to be approved Tuesday will contain new provisions relating to the virtual proceedings. Members of the public will be able to tune in and provide comments during committee hearings.

Republican leadership recently called on the Democratic majority to withhold any controversial bills until legislators are meeting in person, urging them to focus on straightforward measures that should draw broad support.

“It is absurd to eliminate personal contact with citizens and then claim you are doing them a favor by providing the feeble substitute of online access,” Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, said in a statement.

“A Zoom session or any other virtual meeting is an inadequate replacement for face-to-face interaction. Online meetings are easy to control and manipulate. They lack the emotion, energy and intensity that is tangible when dozens or hundreds of people come to Legislative Hall to advocate for a subject about which they are passionate.”

Democrats have pushed back, arguing the virtual nature will allow some people who previously could not take part to give their input.

“I like to think of the glass being half full,” Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola, D-Newark, said.

Key bills

While some of the more hotly contested bills will wait until March or later, Democrats refused to commit to running totally uncontentious proposals. They are expected to push marijuana legalization, a minimum wage increase, voting rights, gun control and criminal justice reform bills at some point, all ideas that could draw strong opposition from the other side as well as some members of their party.

Rep. Schwartzkopf said he does not expect the House to debate particularly antagonistic bills in January, although committees may consider some so that the chamber has a full agenda once it can meet in person.

Sen. Sokola noted people have different definitions of controversial legislation, making it impossible to predict what could spark debate.

“Even after 30 years in office I misread how easy something’s going to be,” he said.

House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, said he believes the legislature would be shirking its duties by focusing on issues like marijuana and minimum wage right now when the effects of the coronavirus are still being felt by so many individuals.

“There’s people out there struggling with regard to making a living and we ought to be dealing with those things and leave the other things a little bit later in the session,” he said.

Treating it as “business as usual” but online does the public a disservice, he said. Without transparency, “they lose faith and sometimes perception becomes reality for people,” Rep. Short noted.

COVID-19 relief is set to include an extension of the outdoor dining provisions and forgiving taxes on unemployment insurance benefits, to name two.

“We’re going to be looking at anything and everything to try to help,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

Education, always a hot topic, looms larger than normal after a state judge last year ruled Delaware’s property tax assessment values are unconstitutional. Additionally, the state settled a related lawsuit alleging disadvantaged students receive a worse education than well-off ones, with Gov. Carney pledging to add more money for children who come from low-income families, have disabilities or are not native English speakers. Under the terms of the settlement, lawmakers must make permanent extra funding for those pupils.

Democrats are hopeful they have the votes to make Delaware the 16th state with legal cannabis. Gov. Carney opposes the concept, but it remains to be seen if he will veto it should it reach his desk.

Criminal justice reform will see strong support from some corners, but in a building where police have significant sway (six members are former police officers), there will be pushback.

Lawmakers could act to remove some police protections, such as amending the Law-Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

Increasing the minimum wage from $9.25, likely to $15, will see intense opposition from the business community but has strong support from many Democrats.

For Sen. Sokola, the pandemic is a great example of why a hike is needed.

“This year has kind of really laid it out in the open how some people are essential workers and aren’t being paid as they’re essential workers,” he said, noting wages have not kept pace with employee productivity over the decades.

As always, legislators will have to pass a budget by the end of June. The financial picture is currently rosier than many imagined six months ago, with December’s projections giving the state about $200 million more to spend than in October.
The governor will present a proposed spending plan on Jan. 28.

In an email, Gov. Carney identified several priorities for 2021: “First things first, we need to come together as a state to beat COVID-19. We will get through this winter surge, make vaccines widely available, and continue to support Delaware families and businesses most affected by this pandemic. But make no mistake: a new day is on the horizon.

“As we enter the next legislative session, we’ll continue to focus on the issues that matter most to every Delaware community. Delawareans want good jobs, first-class schools, and great communities to raise their families. Because we budgeted responsibly, we intend build on the state’s largest-ever infrastructure plan.

“We’ll create jobs and invest in clean water projects, broadband expansion, new schools, and road and bridge repairs. And we’ll continue investing in our schools statewide, with a focus on the students and educators who need our help the most.”

New faces

This is set to be the most diverse legislature in state history.

Of the 62 members, 12 are Black, three are LGBT (including Sarah McBride, one of the first transgender state legislators in the country) and one is Muslim. The chambers are much younger than just a few years ago as well, with legislative veterans retiring or losing elections in recent cycles.

Roughly a quarter of lawmakers are in their 30s, or in the case of at least one, their 20s.

Going into the 2018 election, the building had 12 members first elected prior to 2000. Today, that’s down to three.

Perhaps the best indication of how the makeup has changed is that the three senators serving continuously for at least 40 years have been replaced in the past two elections by individuals born after they first took office.

Democrats hold a 14-7 advantage in the Senate after flipping two seats and the same 26-15 lead in the House as before November’s election. With supermajorities in both chambers, the party can in theory pass tax hikes without any GOP votes, although getting every Democrat on board could be a Herculean task.

There are four new members in each chamber, all Democrats.

The newcomers are energetic and eager to help their constituents with bold ideas, Sen. Sokola said, noting he does not plan to “tamp their energy down.”

Legislators actually met virtually last year for the final month of the session after COVID-19 prevented them from gathering in the building at all for nearly three months. Coincidentally, the General Assembly only approved legislation allowing it to meet virtually in 2018. Had it not done so, it’s unclear how lawmakers would have handled things once the coronavirus arrived in the state.

A 2015 fire at Legislative Hall caused lawmakers to realize they were forbidden from meeting anywhere other than the state capitol, and they endeavored to change the state constitution. In that way, the fire was “a godsend,” Rep. Schwartzkopf noted.

Only time will tell whether this session ends how it began or whether things return to normal. If the vaccine rollout goes smoothly, legislators and the hundreds of others who flock to the capitol on a session day could be in the building by spring.

Stay tuned.