DOVER — Republican lawmakers are again calling for in-person legislative proceedings, arguing it is safe to hold hearings and votes at the state capitol and failing to do so is unfair to the public.
In a statement Wednesday, GOP leadership urged the Democratic majority to reopen Legislative Hall soon. The building has been closed for more than a year due to COVID-19, with lawmakers conducting session virtually in that time.
“In mid-December, House and Senate Republicans issued a joint statement asking that contentious legislation not be worked in the General Assembly until citizens could again attend committee meetings and have face-to-face interactions with their legislators,” Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, said in a statement.
“That lasted only a few weeks before Senate Democrats started seeing the current situation as a prime opportunity to fast-track their progressive agenda. They already passed the $15 an hour minimum wage hike, and two major gun rights infringement bills though our chamber, with more on the horizon. I think Democrats see virtual meetings as an ideal environment in which they can limit and control citizen participation as they pass one contentious bill after another.”
Republicans pointed to a Senate committee meeting last week for two highly charged gun bills. More than 800 people watched the livestream of the hearing, with 285 signing up to speak, although only 41 were able to because of the two-hour time limit.
“I found that meeting to be disturbing,” Senate Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said in a statement. “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.
“Proponents of virtual meetings say they allow greater transparency and participation. That’s not without merit, yet the dark flipside of virtual meetings is that they allow legislators to wield more control. 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.
“As it is, committee chairs don’t even have to look at citizens because they have the option of cutting off their video feed. Virtual meetings facilitate the discourteous treatment of citizens. That is unacceptable at any time, but even more so when there is no reason we cannot meet in-person.”
Members of the GOP noted approximately 165,000 Delawareans have been fully vaccinated, while another 146,000 have received their first of two shots.
Lawmakers are currently on break, with session set to resume April 20. When that happens, the House minority leader believes there are options that would allow proceedings to be safely held in-person.
“There are large meeting spaces in and around Dover that can accommodate the House and Senate committee meetings and floor action, allowing the public to participate, while observing social distancing, mask-wearing and other prudent practices. The ballrooms at Dover Downs would be perfect for this, but there are other large indoor spaces that could equally be put to use,” Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, said in a statement.
But Democratic lawmakers reject those claims. In a lengthy statement in response to the GOP release, Senate Democratic leadership pledged to “return to the Legislative Hall when it is safe” to do so.
“In the meantime, we will not be bullied into delaying legislation broadly supported by Delawareans of both political parties,” they 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.”
Despite the increasing number of Delawareans getting vaccinated, both daily coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are on the rise over the past few weeks.
The GOP claim that controversial legislation should be put on hold until people can meet face-to-face “flies in the face of what Delawareans demanded at the ballot box last fall,” the Democratic caucus said. Last year’s elections saw several Delawareans who ran on progressive platforms unseat more moderate Democrats, including a couple of longtime incumbents.
Democrats previously declined to commit to withholding certain polarizing bills during the virtual proceedings despite GOP requests.
“Our virtual legislative session has resulted in unprecedented public involvement as evidenced by last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee, which may have been the most well-attended committee meeting in the history of the Delaware General Assembly,” President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola, D-Newark; Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, D-Newark; and Senate Majority Whip Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, D-Wilmington, said.
“More than 800 people were able to attend that meeting — four times the fire code occupancy limit of the largest room in Legislative Hall. 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. Thousands of constituents also have communicated with members of the General Assembly on gun safety issues by email, by telephone and in person over the last several years.
“Each and every one of those Delawareans had a chance to participate in the legislative process without anyone having their health or safety put at risk by someone who refuses to admit COVID-19 is real, refuses to be vaccinated or refuses to take the most basic precaution to protect themselves and their neighbors.”
House Democratic leadership also issued a response to the GOP remarks. In a statement late Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf and Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst said they met with House GOP leadership last week and “had a productive conversation” about eventually returning to Legislative Hall.
“So we’re deeply disappointed to see the Republican leadership ignore this collaborative process in their comments to the press. It’s especially frustrating because they know they can call us anytime and discuss concerns they have rather than sending statements to the media,” Rep. Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, and Rep. Longhurst, D-Bear, said.
“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.
“Throughout this entire pandemic, we have been guided by one simple principle: Follow the science to protect the health and safety of the staff, lawmakers and public who take part in the legislative process. This is why we have taken precautions such as the virtual session, which has allowed for record public participation in our committee hearings. That is why we are encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, because the sooner everyone has been inoculated, the sooner we can begin to return to a recognizable legislative session.”
Both sides appear dug in. Unfortunately for Republicans, being in the minority leaves them with few options.
“There is no health-related, technical or logistical barrier to meeting in-person that cannot be addressed and overcome in the next few weeks,” Sen. Pettyjohn said. “If we do not set a hard date to resume action, I believe it will be due to reasons that have nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with controlling public debate.”
The last regularly scheduled day of the 2021 legislative session is June 30.