Legislative panel votes down right-to-work bill

DOVER — A legislative panel on Wednesday voted against a right-to-work bill while sending out of committee a proposal to establish paid family leave for state employees and tabling a measure that would close a loophole involving guns and marijuana.

The Democratic-controlled House Housing & Community Affairs Committee rejected a bill that would allow Sussex County and its municipalities to create “enterprise zones” where right-to-work laws would prevail.

Right-to-work laws, which exist in 28 states, protect workers from being forced to join a union as a condition of employment.

Sussex County Council last week voted down a controversial proposal that would have made the county a right-to-work locale, with council members citing concerns about the legality. Passage could have led to a costly lawsuit from the state, which had said Sussex County could not enact right-to-work on its own.

Supporters of the legislation said Wednesday the proposal would serve the county well and could attract businesses that currently do not even consider settling in Delaware, but their arguments failed to convince Democrats.

All four Republicans on the committee voted for the bill, while all six Democrats voted against releasing it to the House.

“The western side of Sussex County is just not doing well at all and part of it may be this void that was left when DuPont moved out of there,” said Rep. Ron Gray, a Selbyville Republican who is the main sponsor of the legislation.

For years, DuPont employed thousands of people at its nylon factory in Seaford, but by the time the company sold the plant in 2004, employment had declined. INVISTA, the new owner, now has about 150 workers at the site, according to the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce.

“You’re creating wages that do not exist at this point,” Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, a Clayton Republican, said of the bill’s potential.

But opponents of right-to-work argue such policies will lead to the destruction of unions, giving more power to employers.

“I think it makes sense for workers to come together and to raise wages. Just, why should someone get the benefit of union membership or union membership contract without paying for that?” Rep. Sean Matthews, a Talleyville Democrat, asked.

Several union representatives spoke against the bill, while a lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Caesar Rodney Institute, a conservative think tank, urged the committee to pass it.

Republicans have attempted several times over the past few years to make Delaware, or at least portions of it, right-to-work. Two bills that would have empowered the director of the now-defunct Delaware Economic Development Office and local government agencies, respectively, to create right-to-work zones failed to go anywhere in the General Assembly in 2015.

The GOP has been unable to sway Democrats, even when members played hardball last year by refusing to give Democrats votes to raise taxes and balance the budget.

Seaford Town Council, however, did pass an ordinance making the town a right-to-work municipality last month. Whether the town can legally do so is unknown. A spokesman for the Delaware Department of Labor said he has reached out to the Department of Justice for a ruling on Seaford’s vote.

Paid family leave

Legislators did release from the House Administration Committee a bill that would give full-time state employees 12 weeks of paid leave upon the birth of a child.

The measure, backed by Gov. John Carney, passed out of committee with all three Democrats voting yes and one Republican casting a vote against.

The bill applies to all new parents who have been employed by the state for at least a year. Parents who adopt a child no older than 6 would also be eligible for paid leave.

“Paid leave is going to help a lot with many areas. We have put a lot of emphasis on our state in early childhood education and the earliest childhood educators are parents,” main sponsor Rep. Debra Heffernan, a Democrat from Bellefonte, said.

“It will also help with the family bond. It will also help that we will be able to more easily retain employees that wouldn’t want to stay because they’re not getting family leave.”

The federal Family Medical Leave Act gives individuals up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a child, family member or themselves, but the United States does not require workers be offered paid leave. According to the WORLD Policy Analysis Center at UCLA, Papua New Guinea, Suriname and the United States are the only nations that do not provide any paid family leave.

Delaware would be the fifth state with some form of paid leave.

Opponents, however, noted the projected $2.5 million price tag for the state, questioning if it marks the best use of money.

“I really don’t regard this as a women’s bill. This is a state employee benefits bill with a fiscal impact,” House Minority Whip Deborah Hudson, a Hockessin Republican, said in response to supporters proclaiming it a key bill that would help women.

Rep. Heffernan said some women who leave the workforce upon the birth of a child would remain if they have paid leave, while House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat, said the bill would alleviate financial stress for some individuals.

“I think morale goes a long way for somebody that has that benefit,” Rep. Longhurst said. “They know they can have a child and be ok financially. I don’t know how you put a number on morale.”

In addition to the $2.5 million it would cost Delaware to pay overtime and hire substitute teachers, the bill would add a collective total of about $400,000 for the state’s school districts.

The governor is expected to include the cost for the bill in his budget.

Guns and marijuana

Legislation that would close a loophole making it a felony to have a gun and marijuana, even though the state has decriminalized cannabis, was tabled.

In 2017, a Superior Court judge rejected an appeal, finding that while lawmakers made possession of a small amount of marijuana a mere $100 fine in 2015, a prior law classifying ownership of both a firearm and drugs as a felony still stands.

A bill from Rep. Steve Smyk, a Milton Republican, would have resolved the issue by adding an exemption for anyone possessing less than 1 ounce of cannabis. However, Rep. Smyk requested the House Judiciary Committee table the bill because it remains illegal, according to federal law, to own a gun and use marijuana.

Washington D.C. considers marijuana a Schedule I drug, meaning it has “a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence.” Delaware’s medical marijuana program is technically in violation of federal law, as are all state laws allowing cannabis usage for medicinal or recreational purpose.

“We’re going to have to be real creative,” Rep. Smyk said of a potential fix.

Asked why this conflict with federal law matters even though the state has several laws that go against national statutes, Rep. Smyk, a former police officer, said it is because “my name’s on it.”

He plans to have a modification sometime this year.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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