Legislative notebook: Women’s issues highlight final day bills signed by Markell

DOVER — With half of the members of the General Assembly around him, Gov. Jack Markell put pen to paper and signed five different measures into law Thursday.

On the final legislative day of 2016, lawmakers debated measures dealing with gun control, Wilmington school redistricting and felon voting rights. But before the action kicked off, the governor approved a host of bills dealing with various women’s issues.

The bills join seven others focused on similar issues that were signed last year, many of which were filled with pomp and circumstance.

With women’s rights activist Lilly Ledbetter and all 15 women in the General Assembly present for the news conference in honor of the signing, House Majority Leader Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, hailed the event as a “historic day for women in the state of Delaware.”

“We’re expected to judge each other on our looks, the clothes we wear, the life choices we make and in many cases we’re expected to sacrifice parts of ourselves in order to get ahead,” she said. “The reason we’re all here today is because we decided to reject these notions for women in Delaware.

“We chose to work together, not compete as rivals. We accept each other for who we are, not who someone else thinks we should be. We respect each other and we build on each other’s strengths. Today, we are here to tell the mothers, the daughters and the sisters of Delaware that we are allowed to be whoever we want to be, and in our state you can expect to be treated fairly. You can demand equality, and you deserve the chance to seize any opportunity that comes your way.”

The legislation approved by the governor forbids employers from preventing employees from discussing pay, creates a framework for reporting sexual assault on college campuses, bars workplace discrimination on the basis of reproductive health decisions, makes it illegal for companies to single out workers who must care for family members and provides resources for mothers dealing with postpartum depression.

The wage secrecy bill came with controversy, something main sponsor Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, referenced Thursday.

“I’ve heard some folks who may not necessarily agree with this bill talk about, well, there should be all these lawsuits if there was discrimination,” she said. “No, there is discrimination, there are just too many women who are afraid of being fired by not being able to ask the question.”

The measure passed both chambers on party lines. It was approved by the Senate Wednesday, although many lawmakers, even some Democrats who ultimately voted for it, had concerns about unintended consequences and wondered if the bill represented government overreach.

As he looked over the bill that makes it unlawful for employers to fire, refuse to hire or pay lower wages to any individuals because of their reproductive health choices, Gov. Markell remarked, “The fact I have to sign this bill in 2016 is shocking.”

“I just want to say that for a long time I thought that women’s issues were in the rear-view mirror, that people were under the impression that everything was ok now, that everything was equal now, and it’s not. And we know that there’s more work to be done,” Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, said.

Other action

A long-awaited vote on redrawing Wilmington school district lines and adjusting the school funding formula for low-income districts failed in the Senate, with only six legislators voting in favor.

Opponents cited the cost, arguing redistricting would place too much of a burden on taxpayers and place emphasis on northern New Castle while ignoring high-poverty schools in Kent and Sussex.

“The answer was, ‘Send us more money,’” Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, said of a report drafted by a committee created to study Wilmington redistricting.

Although the measure failed, senators did pass on party lines a bill calling for further study of redistricting. The legislation, supported only by Democrats, would allocate $200,000 for the study. The money had earlier been set aside by the Bond Committee.

With the House passing a bill allowing felons to vote before they pay back all their fines associated with the sentences, the proposal moved to Gov. Jack Markell, who called for it in his State of the State.

“Once an individual has paid their debt to society, it is important that we allow them to contribute to their communities,” Gov. Markell, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Voting is one of their most fundamental rights as Americans and I congratulate the members of the General Assembly for increasing access to the ballot box and promoting a more inclusive society.”

Senators voted down several bills, making statements by rejecting proposals opening up university board of trustees’ meetings and urging Congress to pass a gun-control measure.

A resolution calling on Congress to pass legislation preventing anyone on an FBI terrorist watchlist from purchasing a gun failed, falling one vote shy of the needed 11.

The proposal was referred to as a “common sense” idea by main sponsor Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, who unsuccessfully pushed a bill last month that prevent anyone on the watchlist from buying a gun in Delaware.

Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, joined with Republicans in opposing the bill, which opponents alleged was a breach of constitutional rights.

“We have continued to pick away at the Second Amendment, little bit by little bit by little bit. Death by a thousand cuts,” Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, said.

Despite a filibuster by Democrats and pleas from gun-control activists, Congress failed to pass gun-control legislation focused on the no-fly list so last month.

Senators also shot down a measure aimed at making the committees of the board of trustees of the University of Delaware and Delaware State University open to the public.

The universities exist as a hybrid, receiving public money but having exemptions from public-records laws. The University of Delaware’s website refers to it as “state-assisted yet privately governed.”

The bill faced opposition primarily from Republicans but also received two “no” votes from Democrats.

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