Overall, lawmakers worked together well at this year’s General Assembly, according to one local lawmaker, though the session was abridged due to coronavirus concerns.
“I thought it was good,” state Rep. Ron Gray (R-38th) said.
“Everybody was just upset we couldn’t do some of the bills we really wanted to do. But we came together and we got done what we had to do. We all worked together, Democrats and Republicans,” Gray said.
Lawmakers met in session at Legislative Hall in Dover for three weeks, then had discussions during four or five virtual sessions.
“You have a budget bill you have to pass, a bond and Grant-in-Aid. Those three are the most important. Early on, there was a lot of discussion to make sure we got those three bills done,” Gray said.
“It was a learning curve. You get 41 people in the House and you all have one vote call. It was a challenge for all of us. It was good. It brought us together,” he said.
State Sen. Gerald Hocker (R-20th) agreed the session went well, but said he disagreed with how Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, made decisions about closing businesses “without going through the General Assembly.”
“The governor has pretty much left the minority party out of all these decisions,” he said. “Being in business, you look at things completely different than the administration. That was wrong. I think it hurt an awful lot of businesses. The administration has been very anti-business. A lot business owners are going to have problems. I think some businesses were closed that didn’t have to be closed. I’m a necessity. I was open. I have been open,” said Hocker, who, with his family, owns grocery stores.
He said care was taken to sanitize his store, to repeatedly clean surfaces and require employees to wear protective face masks, he said, and nobody has been sick.
Hocker said the legislative session was cut short for good reason, but that all urgent business was completed by the General Assembly.
“I don’t think it was worth opening up leg hall to take a chance when we were making out fine with the leadership calls with the governor, Zoom meetings with our caucus. Anything urgent we needed to do, we got done. Leadership handled things properly.
“I did not want to open leg hall and work legislation if we couldn’t have a full committee meeting to be transparent to our constituents. I think we handled it the right way. No way we could have been transparent with the 6-foot distancing,” Hocker said.
But State Rep. Rich Collins (R-41st) questioned the constitutionality of shortening the session and had some harsh words for the governor.
“Why are we tolerating a one-man rule? Right now, the governor has autonomy,” he asserted. “I was displeased with this year’s General Assembly. I feel members of the General Assembly are expected to be leaders, and when we refuse to go and do our business — the first time in the history of this state — we send a message that we can’t make the economy function,” he told the Coastal Point.
But Jon Starkey, deputy chief of staff for communications in the governor’s office, said Delaware law gives the governor emergency authority and full responsibility to address “the dangers of life, health, environment, property or public peace within the state presented by emergencies or disasters.”
“This has obviously been an unusual and challenging year,” Starkey said. “Legislators did come together and passed a responsible, balanced budget that continues to invest in public education, infrastructure and non-profit service providers, including fire companies and EMS.
“The governor understands some legislators disagree about restrictions related to COVID. Gov. Carney has been focused on protecting lives and livelihoods of Delaware families,” he said.
“All Delaware families and Delaware businesses have made considerable sacrifices to flatten the curve. We want to keep it there,” Starkey said.
“The problem with emergency power is there is no limit to how long he’s going to keep us in a state-of-emergency,” Collins said about Carney.
“We never ever were told we would have to stop our lives and do what the governor says,” Collins said, adding that he believes closings due to the virus were more political than scientific.
“The emergency is over. When it first started, I, along with everyone else, didn’t know. The first thing they did was close the schools. I thought that was absurd. We had one case at the University of Delaware. Right away I said, ‘Well, if you’re going to close the schools with one case, how are you ever going to open them again?’” Collins said.
Republican legislators argue in-person sessions were possible
State Rep. Ruth Briggs King (R-37th) said the delegation was “sort of pushed” to meet remotely.
“I will tell you, from serving on Joint Finance, we did go up there with a small group and we had meetings for a week. Zoom is just not conducive to conducting public business. The public doesn’t have the ability to engage. Nobody can pass a note. It’s difficult on a screen, to look at a text message coming in and try to read it,” she said.
“We passed the money bills. Some other stuff was done, and most of that was more for appearances, maybe, when there were other, substantive things that could have been passed,” she said.
“I’m dissatisfied with the process. There was no opportunity for public engagement. Watching a meeting is different from participating. If anybody watched, they saw it was really not a healthy debate. There were too many moving parts,” Briggs King said.
She said she is convinced there could have been in-person meetings.
“It says in the Constitution we can convene anywhere. We could have set up in a hangar in Dover. There are a lot of different potential places,” she said.
Carney, she said, “acted independently and made decisions.”
When lawmakers sent him a letter outlining their concerns, “I understand he was irate,” she said.
Briggs King said she was “making calls frantically” to the governor’s office and health department when Georgetown was a coronavirus hotspot, but felt she was not making progress.
“They tell you who to contact, but I wasn’t getting heard,” she said.
“Sometimes you call and you get someone at the governor’s office there who doesn’t understand the severity. We were told at the beginning, ‘Here’s how to communicate your information.’
“We have questions. Our constituents have questions. When you have a lobbyist call you and say, ‘This is going to be happening today’ and you say, ‘It is?’
“When a business is small, too small to have a lobbyist, they suffer.
“There are many people working for the governor who are well-educated and who have a lot of knowledge, but there might be a lack of wisdom. Wisdom is what we need. If someone never ran a business, if they never signed a paycheck, it’s difficult to know,” she said.
Starkey said he was surprised to hear Briggs King couldn’t get through to either office.
“The governor and his team had significant conversations with legislative leadership and all members of the General Assembly around concerns in Georgetown this spring,” he said.
Collins said lawmakers could have met during the legislative session in a high school or at Dover Downs, where there was enough space, instead of switching to virtual meetings.
“I do not think we did the people’s business in the way the document tells us we should — the Constitution,” Collins said.
He submitted three bills this session, none of which passed, and said he will resubmit them next year, when the next legislative session will begin.
One bill seeks to require the General Assembly to approve an emergency order after the first 30 days.
“We got a lot of money from the federal government. I put a bill in to recommended $100 million be set aside to benefit businesses that were closed or severely limited,” he said.
The third bill seeks liability protection, so a customer can’t visit a restaurant, claim he contracted the coronavirus while there and sue the restaurant.
“None of my bills were ever worked. We had no opportunity to do anything. We cannot do the people’s business like this,” he said.
Carney, he asserted, started imposing coronavirus restrictions in March, and “now we’re into July and he’s decided we will live and do as he says.” Collins wondered aloud who the scientific experts are that are providing the governor with information, saying he doubts if they are all qualified scientists.
“If you can combine chemicals and make a compound, I’ll call you a scientist,” he said, doubting immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci — director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Disease and advisor to six presidents on HIV/AIDS and other domestic and global health issues — can be included in that classification.
During the legislative session, Collins said, there were a few minor accomplishments. He voted against Carney’s budget, he said, “because we’re so far outside of the founders of the Constitution.”
“The money, once you get past education — and there is no promise we will let kids go back to school — just about all the money goes to the executive branch,” he said.
Gray said many items Carney originally planned to include in his $4.5 billion 2021-fiscal-year budget were cut, including a 2 percent pay raise for state employees.
He provided information explaining more than one of every three dollars in the budget is dedicated to public education. The 2021-fiscal-year budget has $1.6 billion for schools, more than 36.3 percent. Another 27 percent will go to the Department of Health & Social Services.
Budget cuts were necessary, he said, “because the money didn’t come in.”
“Taxes were due, but a lot of people didn’t pay. Businesses have to do quarterly taxes, and they weren’t in business, so we didn’t collect. Or liquor stores. There is a tax on liquor and tobacco products — although a lot of people went to liquor stores, but they didn’t go as much. There were a lot of different taxes that were affected. People who work at restaurants, they just weren’t getting raises. The economy slowed down,” Gray said.
Legislation allows voting by mail
Passed during the session was House Bill 346, to provide a process for voters to file applications for voting by mail — a process normally used to receive an absentee ballot for those who are unable to vote in person due to such reasons as illness or being outside the area on election day.
Collins opposes mail-in voting, saying there is concern about fraud. Due to the coronavirus — which Collins said he doesn’t believe is as much of an emergency as is being reported — the number of polling places will be reduced, with a focus on mail-in voting, in an effort to keep voters safe, but some voters will not vote rather than drive long distances, he said.
Gray provided House of Representatives e-newsletters, e-mailed to lawmakers by Joseph Fulgham, communications officer for the Delaware House of Representatives, containing information explaining the measure passed “on a contested vote split along party lines,” with 25 voting yes and 13 no, two not voting, and one representative absent. All votes approving the legislation came from House Democrats.
Gray said a bill originally earmarked to spend $50 million for clean water ended up being for $13 million.
“These are important dollars, because those have federal matching funds. Then you get more money because you put that first $10 million in,” Gray said.
State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn (R-19th) said many bills on the General Assembly’s agenda this year “simply didn’t happen.”
“There were certain guidelines dealing with COVID-19-related legislation and constitutionally mandated preparations. That was the focus of our time in the General Assembly. We extended executive orders and codified them so restrictions could be lifted.
“There were things that are timely, things that had to happen, like statutory changes that are federal requirements. Those were done. What had to be passed was passed,” he said.
Because the session was shortened, Pettyjohn said, “We kind of go into full constituent-service mode.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing this entire time, helping small business, advocating for them for reopening, helping individuals with unemployment, trying to help those individuals get the benefits they are seeking,” he said.
“It’s good we can do some things virtually, but there is nothing like the transparency of an open meeting, having constituents being able to come and interact with us. This year, I helped people who really needed it,” Pettyjohn said. “That’s what’s it’s all about “