Republicans protest virtual start to Delaware General Assembly

Legislative Hall in Dover. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Legislative Hall in Dover. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Delaware lawmakers have not met in person at Legislative Hall in Dover since before the start of the pandemic, and it’s not clear when they’ll meet in the building again.

Lawmakers will be sworn-in virtually on Jan. 12 to start the 151st session of the General Assembly. The swearing-in and other first day ceremonial activities will be live-streamed on YouTube, state House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf announced last week.

“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a brutal toll on families across Delaware, and 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,” the Rehoboth Beach Democrat said.

Virtual meetings a “silver lining”

The video stream will give a much wider audience than ever before access to activities in Dover, something Schwartzkopf called a “silver lining” of the pandemic restrictions.

“Throughout the entire history of the Delaware General Assembly, if you wanted to deliver a public comment during a committee meeting, you had to be in that room in Legislative Hall. If you wanted to watch a roll-call vote, you had to be in the House or Senate chamber,” he said. “But now, every committee meeting we hold, every floor debate we have, and every vote we take will be streamed live online.”

But legislative leaders in the Republican minority don’t see it the same way.

“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,” said Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, a Republican from Ocean View. “A Zoom session or any other virtual meeting is an inadequate replacement for face-to-face interaction.

Hocker and House Minority Leader Danny Short say returning to work virtually will reduce the public’s ability to have input on what lawmakers are doing. They want debate on any “controversial” bills delayed until lawmakers return to in-person meetings.

“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. “It’s these bills we should be considering in January, and perhaps March, if we’re still meeting virtually then.”

The start of the legislative session typically features less controversial measures and very few, if any, hotly debated issues. Lawmakers are in session for just three weeks in January before taking a five week break for budget hearings.

Democratic State Senate President Pro Tempore-elect David Sokola said, this year, there’s a sense of urgency to get things done now, rather than wait until meeting in person is safe.

“Starting the 151st General Assembly in a virtual format will not stop us from aggressively tackling the economic, public health, and racial justice issues the people of this state are facing on a daily basis,” he said. “This pandemic has laid bare long-standing fractures in our society and we will not let the fact that we’re unable to meet in person prevent us from making progress for Delawareans who can’t afford to wait any longer.”

Until 2018, state law required meetings to be held in person. The law was changed, not out of fears of a pandemic, but because of a 2015 fire that nearly gutted Legislative Hall. That fire exposed a problem with the Delaware Constitution. It said lawmakers could only do their business in person, inside Legislative Hall. The General Assembly then voted to change the constitution to fix that, allowing for alternative meeting sites in case of fire, war, or in the case of 2020, disease.

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