Delaware Democrats reject GOP calls to end virtual legislative session

Frustrated with technological restrictions that limited debate over gun control legislation, Republican lawmakers say it’s time to return to in-person meetings.

Legislative Hall in Dover. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Legislative Hall in Dover. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

It’s time to return to Dover.

That’s the call from Republican legislative leaders after frustrations over a lengthy online committee hearing on a pair of gun control bills.

Hundreds tuned in to the online hearing and dozens signed up to speak at the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Those speakers were limited by committee chair state Sen. Darius Brown to just one minute.

Because the speakers all appeared via video conference, members of the public had their microphones automatically cut off at the one-minute mark. Some speakers weren’t able to get connected due to technical difficulties.

One of the bills mandates training and a permit for handgun purchases, while the other restrict high-capacity magazines. Both were approved by the full Senate the next day.

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“I found that meeting to be disturbing,” said Senate Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn, who is 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.”

State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, seen here during a virtual legislative session last wee, is one of several Republicans call for lawmakers to return to in-person meetings. (Screenshot via Delaware state Senate)

He said virtual meetings allow lawmakers to remain disconnected from the public, despite the ease-of-access online sessions provide.

“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,” Pettyjohn said.

State House Minority Whip Tim Dukes said as more Delawareans get vaccinated for COVID-19, it’s time 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,” Dukes said.

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Democratic leaders in both the Senate and House strongly rejected the Republican calls.

“We are all eager to return to in-person meetings in Legislative Hall when it is safe to do so,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola, Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, and Senate Majority Whip Tizzy Lockman in a joint statement.

“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.”

The Dems viewed last week’s virtual committee hearing in a much different light. They say it may have been the most well-attended committee meeting in the history of the 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,” they said. “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.”

With majorities in both chambers of the legislature, Democrats control when to reopen Legislative Hall. House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf said they met with Republican leaders in late March to talk about when it would be appropriate to return to meeting in person and called the conversation productive.

“We’re deeply disappointed to see the Republican leadership ignore this collaborative process in their comments to the press,” Schwarzkopf said in a joint statement with House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst.

Republican leaders made similar complaints about virtual meetings in December, when Delaware’s coronavirus numbers were soaring. At that time, they called on Democratic leadership to delay debate on any “controversial” legislation until lawmakers could meet in person.

“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,” Schwartzkopf and Longhurst said.

Senate leaders said they will only return to Legislative Hall when it’s safe to do so.

“We will not be bullied into delaying legislation broadly supported by Delawareans of both political parties,” Sokola, Townsend, and Lockman said. “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.”

Earlier this week, Gov. John Carney said he’d been considering relaxing the state’s coronavirus restrictions in early March, but as the state’s numbers have started to rise again, those discussions have been put on hold.

As of Wednesday evening, Delaware is recording 319 new cases a day on a seven-day average. That’s well above the daily average of 187 back in mid-March.

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