Citing recent contentious Senate committee hearings, and dramatically rising COVID-19 inoculation rates, House and Senate Republican leaders have called for the Delaware General Assembly to resume actual public committee meetings and floor action.
It has been more than a year since the state Legislature stopped meeting at Legislative Hall to help curtail the spread of COVID-19. While the House and Senate have met virtually, and held online committee meetings, General Assembly Republicans point to a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on two controversial gun-control bills as proof of the flawed system.
“I found that meeting to be disturbing,” said state Senate Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, who sits on the committee. “Citizens testifying before us were given one minute to provide testimony, were often cut off in mid-sentence, and were not allowed to engage members of the committee. Proponents of virtual meetings say they allow greater transparency and participation. That’s not without merit, yet the dark flipside of virtual meetings is that they allow legislators to wield more control. They are able to keep citizens at arm’s length, distancing themselves from the weight of emotional testimony that could not be denied were they in the same room. As it is, committee chairs don’t even have to look at citizens because they have the option of cutting off their video feed. Virtual meetings facilitate the discourteous treatment of citizens. That is unacceptable at any time, but even more so when there is no reason we cannot meet in-person.”
House Minority Whip Tim Dukes, R-Laurel, agreed, saying the time has come for lawmakers to return. “In the same week that all Delawareans, age 16 and older, can sign up to get vaccinated, it seems appropriate for the Legislature to set a hard date to again meet where the members of the public can witness our proceedings and impact the process by testifying and meeting with their elected officials.”
“In mid-December, House and Senate Republicans issued a joint statement asking that contentious legislation not be worked in the General Assembly until citizens could again attend committee meetings and have face-to-face interactions with their legislators,” said Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View. “That lasted only a few weeks before Senate Democrats started seeing the current situation as a prime opportunity to fast-track their progressive agenda. They already passed the $15 an hour minimum wage hike, and two major gun rights infringement bills though our chamber, with more on the horizon. I think Democrats see virtual meetings as an ideal environment in which they can limit and control citizen participation as they pass one contentious bill after another.”
House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, said returning to in-person committee meetings can be done safely, observing proper antiviral protocols. “There are large meeting spaces in and around Dover that can accommodate the House and Senate committee meetings and floor action, allowing the public to participate, while observing social distancing, mask-wearing, and other prudent practices. The ballrooms at Dover Downs would be perfect for this, but there are other large indoor spaces that could equally be put to use.”
Speaker of the House Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, and Senate President Pro Tem David Sokola, D-Newark, have total control over setting the conditions for bringing their respective chambers back into session. All four Republican leaders said both men need to resume in-person legislative action.
“There is no health-related, technical, or logistical barrier to meeting in person that cannot be addressed and overcome in the next few weeks,” Pettyjohn said. “If we do not set a hard date to resume action, I believe it will be due to reasons that have nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with controlling public debate.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola, D-Newark, Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, D-Bear/Newark, and Senate Majority Whip Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, D-Wilmington, released the following statement in response to Republican leaders calling for the Delaware General Assembly to resume session in person:
“We are all eager to return to in-person meetings in Legislative Hall when it is safe to do so. But the Minority Party’s suggestion that we cannot or should not continue our work before that happens flies in the face of what Delawareans demanded at the ballot box last fall.
“Delawareans have been asked to make dramatic changes in how they conduct business, and they’ve adapted time and time again. They deserve the same nimbleness from their elected representatives. Our virtual legislative session has resulted in unprecedented public involvement as evidenced by theSenate Judiciary Committee, which may have been the most well-attended committee meeting in the history of the Delaware General Assembly. More than 800 people were able to attend that meeting - four times the fire code occupancy limit of the largest room in Legislative Hall. Public comment was strictly held to one minute per person for people on both sides of the debate, specifically so we could hear from as many people as possible. Thousands of constituents also have communicated with members of the General Assembly on gun safety issues by email, by telephone and in person over the last several years.
“Each and every one of those Delawareans had a chance to participate in the legislative process without anyone having their health or safety put at risk by someone who refuses to admit COVID-19 is real, refuses to be vaccinated, or refuses to take the most basic precaution to protect themselves and their neighbors. Again, we will return to the Legislative Hall when it is safe.
“In the meantime, we will not be bullied into delaying legislation broadly supported by Delawareans of both political parties. We will not be bullied into putting the public’s health at risk. And we will not be dissuaded from governing, especially at a time when Delaware is just beginning to recover from this pandemic.”
Schwartzkopf, Longhurst also issue statement
In response to the statement from House and Senate Republican leaders regarding legislative session, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, and House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst issued the following joint statement:
“On March 29, we met with House Republican leaders and discussed tentative plans for a phased-in return to in-person legislative session this year. We asked for their input and we had a productive conversation. Rep. Short and Rep. Dukes thanked us and agreed with the preliminary plans.
“So we’re deeply disappointed to see the Republican leadership ignore this collaborative process in their comments to the press. It’s especially frustrating because they know they can call us anytime and discuss concerns they have rather than sending statements to the media.
“Since the pandemic began, we have involved the minority caucus in decisions about House operations. In those meetings, they tell us they appreciate the effort. In public, they try to score political points and claim they're being railroaded.
“Throughout this entire pandemic, we have been guided by one simple principle: Follow the science to protect the health and safety of the staff, lawmakers and public who take part in the legislative process. This is why we have taken precautions such as the virtual session, which has allowed for record public participation in our committee hearings. That is why we are encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, because the sooner everyone has been innoculated, the sooner we can begin to return to a recognizable legislative session. Currently, less than 20 percent of Delawareans have been fully vaccinated, so we have to continue those efforts.”
The Legislature is currently on its Easter break and will return to session April 21.