The 151st General Assembly will open virtually, and Republican legislators aren’t happy about it.
While the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate say it’s to safeguard the health and welfare of legislators, staff and the public, Republican leaders say the decision was not bipartisan and that it blunts the ability of the public to participate.
Democrats cites the rising number of COVID cases and hospitalizations taking a toll on Delaware families and businesses, even with vaccinations starting.
“After much discussion and deliberation, we determined that there was simply no way for the General Assembly to safely convene our new legislative session in person,” House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said in a press release. “Nevertheless, the people of Delaware elected us to do a job, and when January 12 gets here, we intend to get to work considering bills, holding committee hearings, voting on legislation and doing all the things that the General Assembly is expected to do, just in a different format.”
Schwartzkopf said being virtual gives the public more access than ever before to the business of the Legislature because they can stream meetings and participate.
“Every committee meeting we hold, every floor debate we have, and every vote we take will be streamed live online,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, and House Minority Leaders Danny Short, R-Seaford, blasted the plan in a subsequent press release
“It is absurd to eliminate personal contact with citizens and then claim you are doing them a favor by providing the feeble substitute of online access,” Hocker said in the release. “A Zoom session or any other virtual meeting is an inadequate replacement for face-to-face interaction. Online meetings are easy to control and manipulate. They lack the emotion, energy and intensity that is tangible when dozens or hundreds of people come to Legislative Hall to advocate for a subject about which they are passionate.”
The first day of the new legislative session will be Tuesday, Jan. 12. Representatives and senators will gather in virtual meetings of their respective chambers to take their oaths of office, formally elect the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and adopt rules and procedures for conducting legislative business, the Democrat press release said.
Opening day exercises will be live-streamed on the General Assembly’s YouTube channels. Committee meetings and sessions of the full House and Senate throughout January will also be conducted virtually and live-streamed, with provisions to facilitate public participation during committee meetings, the Democrat press release said.
Short and Hocker said the legislature should limit its work in early 2021 to essential bills and measures on which there is little disagreement. They say a large portion of the bills the General Assembly handles are minor, uncontentious and tend to clear the legislature with broad agreement.
“There were a lot of non-controversial bills we were not able to move last year, and several new measures, like an annual tweak to the Bond Bill, that should be worked,” Short said in the Republican press release. “It’s these bills we should be considering in January, and perhaps March, if we’re still meeting virtually then.”
Sokola said in the press release that the pandemic had laid bare many divides in the state and it was time for the legislature to tackle them.
Sokola “leaves little doubt he intends to start immediately considering potentially divisive bills,” Short said in the Republican release. “Claiming these bills are so important and urgent that they cannot possibly be delayed until early spring is disingenuous. It is an apparent attempt to diminish any dissent by keeping it online and at a distance — minimizing the rhetorical weight of those objecting to these likely contentious policies.”
The Democratic press release said the virtual plan was created by a bipartisan team of legislators and staff and that the group will re-evaluate the need for continuing to meet virtually after January.
Until recently, Delaware law required the General Assembly to meet in person in Legislative Hall to conduct business., the Democratic press release said. However, the Legislature amended the state Constitution in 2018 to allow for session to take place in alternative locations during an emergency.
The rules of each chamber, which are adopted at the outset of every legislative session, will contain new provisions that will ensure virtual sessions and committee meetings are conducted, the Democratic press release said.
The rules will spell out requirements for printing of legislation and affixing legislators’ signatures to bills and committee reports. The procedures will also include a method to verify the identity of each legislator and ensure they are able to participate in virtual sessions, as well as codify a means for the public to observe and participate in legislative proceedings.
Legislative Hall will remain closed to the public.