Commentary: Delaware’s legislature should go back to work in special session

By Bill Bowden

The “wait and hope” strategy embraced by the Delaware Legislature in response to this pandemic is simply not credible.

At the end of June, they adjourned the session, went home and left a significant body of incomplete work on the table. Their next scheduled session would be Jan. 12, 2021, if this insidious pandemic is in control.

In an earlier article, I urged the Legislature to activate its emergency continuity of government plan and get back to work. I was not urging them to work harder but wanted to point out the need to work smarter during this pandemic.

Our executive and judicial branches of government did just that, as they have detailed plans that permitted them to continue to meet their constitutional obligations. Our legislative branch didn’t have a continuity of government plan worked out in advance and had to adjourn. The members need to build a comprehensive continuity of government plan that would allow them to work in any circumstances. The executive branch has significant expertise in this area and could help in building a complete plan.

To its credit, after taking nearly three months off, the Legislature cobbled together a minimal plan that permitted them to meet remotely. Weeks later, the members started meeting remotely, concentrating on the essential work needed to pass a budget for next year. Unfortunately, their limited approach did not allow for any committee meetings other than those needed to complete the budget. Without those additional sessions and committee meetings, a large amount of pending legislation is now left to expire.

Bill Bowden

The 150th legislative session spans two years and formally ended June 30. At that time, all pending legislation that has not passed both chambers and been signed by the governor could expire. When reviewing data on its website, you see that of the almost 600 bills introduced this session, approximately 350 are still pending. If no action is taken on these bills during a special session, all the previous committee work is lost, requiring starting over again in the 151st session. This means they have to find a sponsor, be assigned to a committee, etc. Almost 100 of the 350 expiring bills are on the ready-to-vote-now lists. These bills offer hope of improvement in areas like minimum wage, health care, increased transparency, criminal justice, clean water and education, to name a few. House Bill 100, creating separate and sustained funding for mental health positions in schools, is a prime example of the urgency to move legislation forward.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of the completed committee and staff work is lost if these bills are allowed to expire. This would be a disappointing waste of time, money and the potential improvement these bills would bring.

This limited legislative session also prevented needed legislative meetings where feedback, planning and constructive dialog from our senators and representatives could take place on the challenges brought on by this pandemic emergency. Because of this, some legislators (mostly Republicans) have felt disenfranchised in this process and are deserving of having their voices heard, representing the feedback of their constituents. Our governing process would be much stronger by having the voices of all 62 legislators weighing in on the challenges presented by this pandemic.

I believe that our state legislators are essential and that they need to be in session whenever we have a state or national emergency. We have an ever-evolving list of new challenges for our state, our businesses, our schools and our citizens. We are going to need the creativity of all 62 legislators to help develop a path forward. Neither party has a corner on good ideas.

Political partisanship in Delaware, though not as bad as we see in Washington, remains an obstacle to making progress for our citizens. All legislators, regardless of their party, need to be treated with respect and have their voices heard. They provide needed checks and balances, as well as being creative problem-solvers, policymakers, financiers and roadblock-removers. We also count on them to ensure that citizen feedback from all perspectives is considered in the decision-making process.

Legislators can’t fulfill these responsibilities if they are not in session. It doesn’t make sense to wait until next year to address these challenges.

Accordingly, I am encouraging all legislators to support the idea of entering into a special session and getting back to work to prevent the bills from expiring! These are extraordinary times that need extraordinary action. If you agree, please encourage your legislators to make this extraordinary special session happen.

Bill Bowden is a retired Verizon Delaware executive, past president of the Delaware Quality Award and served for eight years as the executive director of Delaware’s Department of Technology and Information.