Republicans urge Democratic majority to hold controversial bills during virtual session

DOVER — In the wake of Democratic leadership announcing the 151st General Assembly will begin virtually due to COVID, Republican lawmakers are calling on the legislature to avoid controversial bills for the time being.

Thursday, the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore officially revealed the General Assembly will be in a virtual format when lawmakers convene for a new session Jan. 12. They will meet over Zoom through at least the end of January.

In a statement Friday, the minority leaders said it would be unfair for the legislature to consider hotly contested measures until Delawareans can attend in person.

“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,” Sen. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, said. “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.”

Daniel B. “Danny” Short

Sen. Hocker and Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, said lawmakers will have many uncontentious proposals the General Assembly should focus on.

“There were a lot of non-controversial bills we were not able to move last year, and several new measures, like an annual tweak to the Bond Bill, that should be worked,” Rep. Short said. “It’s these bills we should be considering in January, and perhaps March, if we’re still meeting virtually then.”

They also took issue with Democrats describing Thursday’s announcement as bipartisan and with President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola, D-Newark, pledging to “aggressively (tackle) the economic, public health, and racial justice issues the people of this state are facing on a daily basis.”

“Sen. Sokola’s comments — which I did not see until after he issued his press release — leaves little doubt he intends to start immediately considering potentially divisive bills. Claiming these bills are so important and urgent that they cannot possibly be delayed until early spring is disingenuous,” Rep. Short opined.

“It is an apparent attempt to diminish any dissent by keeping it online and at a distance — minimizing the rhetorical weight of those objecting to these likely contentious policies. This is a needlessly provocative way for him to begin his tenure as the leader of the Senate.”

Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, described the GOP statement as unnecessarily partisan and counterproductive, saying January’s agenda will contain bills “that these individuals in hindsight might feel sheepish about having objected to blindly and so divisively.”

The Republicans should approach the majority caucuses behind the scenes if they have questions or concerns, he said, adding he hopes to be able to hold some committee hearings in person with proper COVID protocols to allow as much public input as possible.

“For them to rush to conclusions, for a House minority leader to essentially shout across the building and criticize the Senate pro tem via press release is not at all the kind of dialogue and decorum that I think would result in very productive session in the middle of a pandemic,” Sen. Townsend said.

Brewery bills

Delaware craft breweries and brewpubs, which have been among the businesses hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, could see new opportunities for growth under legislation filed Friday.

Sponsored by Rep. Bill Bush, House Bill 45 would allow Delaware breweries to own and operate up to five brewpubs in the state, an increase from the three currently permitted. Brewpubs in Delaware are licensed by the Office of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commissioner.  

“By capping these licenses at three, we are unnecessarily stunting the growth of our brewpubs, and in many cases, causing them to expand out of our state,” Rep. Bush, D-Dover, said in a statement. “Allowing additional licenses will give our local craft breweries the ability to grow, creating jobs and opportunities here in Delaware.”

In addition to their impact on local economies, Delaware’s craft breweries and brewpubs attract thousands of visitors every year, bolstering Delaware’s tourism sector. 

Another measure filed Friday would permit Delaware brewpubs and microbreweries to brew, bottle and sell their own hard seltzers, a beverage that has seen a rise in popularity in recent years.

While current Delaware law prohibits breweries from creating their own hard seltzers, federal law has allowed the brewing of hard seltzer for decades. House Bill 46, also sponsored by Rep. Bush, would update Delaware’s code to mirror the existing federal law. 

“Consumer taste changes fast and the brewery industry has to change with it,” cosponsor Sen. Trey Paradee, D-Dover, said in a statement. “Taken together, these bills will give our brewpubs greater flexibility, encourage job creation and allow this booming industry to prosper for years to come.”

Among other bills filed Friday are measures to bar the release of names and mugshots in most circumstances for individuals younger than 18 who are charged with crimes and to double from $200 to $400 the amount a tenant may deduct from rent payments if the landlord fails to repair or maintain the dwelling.