The 2022 Delaware Legislative Session began this week, virtually, to help stop the spread of the coronavirus — a move state Sen. Gerald Hocker (R-20th) opposes and that state Rep. Ron Gray (R-38th) hopes changes to in-person sessions by early March.

“That is not the most transparent way to do business, by having virtual meetings. I think we’ve been lied to more than once about this COVID. I’ve been going into my store every day, and I’ve been safe,” said Hocker, who, with his wife, owns Hocker’s Super Center and G&E Hocker’s Supermarket.

“There are as many people getting sick that are vaccinated. When it comes time for elected officials to go and make laws that affect everybody, they don’t want anybody there,” he said of Legislative Hall in Dover. “That’s not the way to govern,” said Hocker, who is vaccinated against the virus but said he will not get a booster shot.

Starting this year’s session virtually is the result of a Jan. 7 announcement by Senate President Pro Tempore David Sokola that the second half of the 151st General Assembly would begin in a mostly virtual format. It was also announced that all committee hearings would be conducted online, as they were last year, and the Senate will only convene in-person on Thursdays, Jan. 20 and 27.

Gov. John Carney is scheduled to present his State of the State address in mid-January.

The Legislative Session is planned for the next three weeks in January, then it will end while the Joint Finance Committee meets for several weeks. Legislators will reconvene in early March, said Gray, who, like Hocker, said he prefers in-person meetings.

“I’m hoping after a month we will be done with these spikes in the number of COVID cases. The best way to meet about government is in person. As you’re talking to someone, questions come up. It’s the personal touch you have. People, if they are in-person, seem to ask more questions,” Gray said.

All lawmakers are required to wear protective face masks while in Legislative Hall, as is the policy for all state buildings, including schools — a mandate Hocker dismissed, saying a doctor had told him masks don’t actually protect against transmission of the coronavirus but are “just a feel-good thing.”

On Monday this week, Carney signed a revision of the state-of-emergency declaration and required all Delaware residents to again wear masks everywhere indoors, including convenience stores, grocery stores, gyms, restaurants, bars, hair salons, malls and casinos. The requirement went into effect at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 11.

“Our hospital systems are facing a crisis-level situation, with record numbers of Delawareans seeking emergency care. We need all Delawareans in the fight as we face this winter surge of COVID-19 to make sure our hospitals are not overrun,” Carney stated.

“I know we’re all exhausted by this pandemic. But at the level of hospitalizations we’re seeing, Delawareans who need emergency care might not be able to get it. That’s just a fact. It’s time for everyone to pitch in and do what works. Wear your mask indoors. Avoid gatherings or expect to get and spread COVID. Get your vaccine and, if eligible, get boosted. That’s how we’ll get through this surge without endangering more lives,” Carney stated.

Hocker said he opposes the requirement for face masks in schools, and this week, Gray, who has had two vaccinations and a booster shot to protect against the coronavirus, said he wrote to Carney asking that wearing face masks be left to the discretion of schools. He said he hadn’t yet received a reply as of early this week.

Hocker said he wants to see elected officials concentrate on education during the 2022 legislative session, as well as public safety, the economy and parents’ rights.

He said he plans to introduce legislation to help parents pay their children’s state-funded tuition to a private, charter or other school if they decide to take them out of public schools.

“Parents have had a chance to see what is being taught, with virtual learning, and they would like to see the parents take the school system back. If enough parents can get their children out of the school system, it would create the competition and many of our schools would start listening to our parents,” he said.

While he said he believes the Indian River School system and school board members “do a fabulous job of listening to the parents, some school districts don’t.”

Sure to be discussed, and railed against this year, is the Healthy Delaware Families Act, Senate Bill 1, which seeks to create a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program that would allow employees to take off work, with pay, for up to 12 weeks for reasons including personal illness, because they are responsible for caring for a sick family member, to bond with a new child, because of domestic violence or due to a family member’s military deployment.

Hocker has called it “a small-business killer and a bad bill” that he doesn’t even want to see go before lawmakers.

“At our stores, we could hire 20 more right now. I have had several husband-and-wife couples and those that live together working for me, and if they were to take 12 weeks of family leave off, we would almost at this point have to close the store,” he argued.

“Our students have been hurt so bad with this pandemic. Test scores are down. Schools are now saying they are having trouble getting substitute teachers in science and math. If you lose a science teacher, if that teacher can take off 12 weeks, that is one-third of the school year. That would be devastating to our students, and they have already been hurt enough,” Hocker said.

Gray said SB-1 “will be a hot bill this session.”

“As a small-businessperson, I don’t think we need to have 12 weeks. I am compassionate if you have a loved one at home and you want to take care of them, but how does a small business deal with that? It makes it hard to be productive and keeps things going. I don’t think the government should force a private business to do that anyhow. It should be up to the business owner,” he said this week.

State Rep. Ruth Briggs Kings (R-37th) has also stated her opposition to the bill and predicted it would be “much more expensive to the employer than the estimates, especially when you have spouses and each of them has the same employer.”

“They could both take off 12 weeks of paid leave. It becomes burdensome in a tight labor market where we are. Who is going to do the work? How does that impact business? In the restaurant industry, they are already working with half the staff. Those who are in favor say it will help with retention, but in my experience in high-level human resources, once they take that leave, it’s difficult to get them to return. Some of them know they aren’t coming back but they don’t tell you that. They don’t want to lose that 12-week benefit,” she said.

A bill allowing recreational marijuana use in the state will also not get the support of Hocker or Gray.

“Marijuana is a gateway drug, and it leads to other things,” Hocker argued during a Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce meeting last November. “Some people will tell you it isn’t a gateway drug, but it is. I have seen it with employees and in my own family. I don’t know of a police officer that supports this bill.”

“That marijuana bill will come back up this year, and it will be controversial,” Gray said. “I will not be supporting that, at least for now. We have to wait and see how other states are doing with this. It’s difficult for testing for police. If you get stopped on the highway, how do you test for it? There isn’t a real good way to do that now. Marijuana stays in your system for a week or something, so you might not be high at that moment but it might be in your system,” he said.

Concerning clean and traversable waterways, Hocker said dredging is mandatory, especially to rejuvenate marshes and bays, and Gray agreed.

“I’m a big proponent of dredging. I want to work with DNREC to move forward with projects including dredging White Creek. The Assawoman Canal is right there on White Creek. There have been requests from several residents who live on the canal and nearby asking if that canal be dredged,” Gray said.

Hocker said he would like to see the State’s $800 million budget surplus be used to “give back to Delaware residents” adding that he does not want to see taxes increase.

“Our retirees are on a fixed income, and inflation is now higher than has been in some 35 years. Combine that with a fixed income, and some of those people are really hurting. What we need to come up with is — and this is a federal thing — to get our retirees back to work. And you get that by giving them tax incentives,” he said.

Gray said working to alleviate drainage problems is important him. He said he has also been talking to DelDOT officials about creating multiple-use paths along roadways.

“Some of the roads are narrow and the ditches are close. They are not conducive for a family to go for a bike ride or a walk. If more people could walk or ride their bicycles to the store, it would relieve traffic on the roadways,” he said.

Gray said he expects discussion about House Bill 199 — written to give more equality to transgender individuals — and added that he is “not sure how that will go, but it will be controversial.”

The summary of the bill states, “In 2019, Delaware amended the state constitution to prohibit the denial or abridgement of equal rights under the law based on sex, and thereafter in 2020, race, color, and national origin were added. This Act is the first leg of a constitutional amendment to add sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability to Article I, § 21 of the Delaware Constitution to declare explicitly that protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability is one of Delaware’s fundamental rights.”

“We need to be open to all, but I’m a believer in strong family values and conventional family. I also want to be considerate of everyone. That is all I’m going to say about that right now,” Gray said.

Staff Reporter

Veteran news reporter Susan Canfora has written for many newspapers and held positions ranging from managing editor to her favorite, news reporter. She joined the Coastal Point in June 2019. She teaches college writing, tutors and professionally edits.