Senate takes up national popular vote legislation

DOVER — Legislative committees released to the full Senate Wednesday controversial bills that would give Delaware’s electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote nationwide and raise the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21.

The national vote bill is expected to be voted on by the Democratic-controlled Senate today, while the smoking measure will likely come before the chamber Tuesday. Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, supports both proposals.

Senate Bill 22 would tie Delaware’s three electoral votes for president to the popular vote, entering Delaware into an agreement with other states that have passed the same measure.

The bill would not take effect unless the participating states account for a majority of electoral votes. Should they reach the magic threshold of 270, those states would be required to cast their votes for the candidate who wins the nationwide popular vote.

The bill would not eliminate the Electoral College.

Currently, 11 states, totaling 172 electoral votes, have passed the measure.

Supporters on Wednesday claimed the proposal would boost voter turnout and cause non-battleground states to assume greater importance in presidential contests; opponents said it would simply shift the focus to the nation’s largest cities and might violate the U.S. Constitution’s clause on interstate compacts.

“When every vote’s equal, no state gets shoved aside, which is currently happening in 38 states,” Chris Pearson, a state senator from Vermont advocating for the bill, told the Senate Elections, Government and Community Affairs Committee.

The bill has engendered strong passions, causing one former cosponsor to withdraw his support and prompting dozens of people to show up for the committee hearing, necessitating it be moved to a larger room in Legislative Hall.

“Southern Delaware is already being disfranchised by northern Delaware,” said Bill Sharp. “Our votes aren’t being heard.”

Although most of the bill’s supporters are Democrats, some Republicans have signed on as cosponsors.

Senate Bill 25, a measure that would block 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds from buying cigarettes, vapes and other tobacco products, was released by the Senate Health and Social Services Committee, one day after supporters gathered to promote the policy change.

“Four out of five adult smokers became addicted, daily smokers before age 21,” Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle, said in a statement. “Raising the age to buy tobacco products would mean that fewer adults would develop a lifelong habit that carries life-shortening consequences.

“Tobacco use costs Delaware more than $500 million each year in direct medical-related costs, but it costs families much more in terms of loves ones taken far too soon.”

About 1,400 Delawareans die from tobacco-related diseases each year.

The Senate Sunset Committee heard two bills that would prohibit abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and mandate a doctor offer a patient an ultrasound of her fetus before performing an abortion. While the committee report had not been received as of 5:30, failure was all but preordained for the two bills in the Democratic-controlled legislature.

Like with the popular vote bill, the measure drew a large crowd of vehement supporters and opponents, prompting the hearing to be moved to a larger room.

More than 100 people packed the Senate chamber for the discussion, and 38 people, evenly split between proponents and those against it, signed up to speak.

“These two bills do not forbid all abortions,” main sponsor Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Laurel, said in a statement after they were introduced. “The first protects the lives of the unborn starting well into the second trimester when the unborn can feel pain.

“Two forms of abortion are performed at this stage of development: dismemberment and burning the fetus by injecting a saline solution. Neither can be considered just.

“The second bill gives women information about the development of the child they are carrying, in order to allow for an informed decision. This measure has been shown to save almost four out of five babies whose mothers were going to have abortions.”

But others countered the legislation seeks to deny women bodily autonomy.

“Abortion restrictions that are written by politicians, not doctors, that are not based in science and are instead about shaming women and restricting access to safe, legal medical procedures should have no place in Delaware,” Planned Parenthood of Delaware President and CEO Ruth Lytle-Barnaby said in a statement.

In the House Revenue and Finance Committee, legislation repealing an increase in the realty transfer tax enacted in 2017 to balance the budget was tabled, with the main sponsor pledging to work with state officials and other lawmakers to consider ways to lessen the financial hit Delaware would take from the bill.

With Democrats and Republicans at an impasse in trying to find a way to raise extra revenue to close a budget gap, the General Assembly in July 2017 agreed to raise the tax on home sales from 3 to 4 percent, against protests from realtors and dissenting legislators.

That tax is split unevenly between the state and counties, with the state getting 2.5 percent and the county where the sale takes place receiving 1.5 percent. The seller and the buyer each pay half the tax, although lawmakers last year passed legislation exempting first-time homebuyers from the increase, providing them with a credit of up to $2,000.

House Bill 32 would undo the 1 percent hike, although the bill comes with a major cost: an estimated loss of $74 million to Delaware’s coffers in the first fiscal year.

Main sponsor Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, said he was blown away by the expected financial impact and asked the bill be tabled to allow for discussion about a potential compromise.

“Just a way to maybe take some of that additional income we have in revenues right now and try to rectify one particular industry that I think got hit harder than all the rest,” he said, mentioning a smaller reduction or a credit for the seller as options.

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

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

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