DOVER — Delaware lawmakers approved dozens of bills Tuesday, the penultimate day of the regularly scheduled 2021 legislative session.
The chambers passed legislation to change the police use-of-force standard, almost completely ban carryout plastic bags and eliminate a sub-minimum wage, among many other measures. The Senate and House also approved the capital bond bill, adding to the operating budget they rubber-stamped last week.
That budget goes into effect Thursday, meaning Wednesday is the last day of the fiscal year and the close of normal business for the Delaware General Assembly in 2021.
Both chambers will convene Wednesday afternoon and complete any remaining business lawmakers hope to finish before breaking until January. After that, they’ll exit, only to gather virtually later that night.
Because of a quirk in state law, lawmakers will enter back into session through Zoom after 11 p.m. and remain until the clock strikes midnight and the calendar rolls over to July 1, at which point they’ll start a special session. From there, the chambers will probably conclude business and “gavel out,” allowing everyone to get some sleep.
Unlike past final days of session, this finale is expected to be a cinch, meaning lawmakers could be in and out as Wednesday turns into Thursday.
Unusually, the General Assembly is already planning to return in the fall, as the redistricting process that must be in place for the 2022 elections was pushed back this year due to delays on the federal government’s end. Lawmakers are not expected to handle any legislation aside from the redistricting proposals at that time.
The capital bond bill for the upcoming fiscal year totals $1.35 billion, while grant-in-aid funding for nonprofits comes in at $63.2 million. The operating budget is $4.77 billion plus a separate $221 million for one-time items, chiefly pay raises and pension increases.
All three totals — operating, capital and grant-in-aid — are record highs, owing to the influx of unanticipated revenue this year.
“Through this bill, we are making an unprecedented investment in Delaware’s future by funding dozens of infrastructure projects that will help support our state’s economy for generations to come,” Sen. Nicole Poore, a New Castle Democrat and the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Capital Improvements, said in a statement.
“This legislation is about more than the long-term future of our state. It’s about supercharging job growth in Delaware today, at the exact moment our state is transitioning into a post-pandemic economy. Every single project funded through the capital budget will help create good-paying jobs that will put Delawareans back to work and help families across our state secure their futures as well. This is exactly the investment we need at exactly the moment we need it.”
With the House passing the grant-in-aid bill Tuesday, all that’s left to send the final spending measure to the governor is for the Senate to vote on it. Gov. John Carney will likely sign all three bills at the same time today.
The House sent to the governor legislation changing the use-of-force standard for police in the state, passing it 25-16. Rep. Andria Bennett, a Dover Democrat, joined all 15 Republicans in what was otherwise a party-line vote.
Senate Bill 147 would establish the first objective use-of-force standard for police officers in Delaware by stipulating the use of both lethal and non-lethal force is legally justifiable only if that belief is determined to be reasonable. Delaware is currently one of only three states that permits police officers to use deadly force whenever they feel it is justified, regardless of whether such a belief is reasonable.
“Today Delaware is ready to fix one of America’s weakest use-of-force laws, period. This issue has come up again and again throughout our state’s debate on police reform,” Attorney General Kathy Jennings said in a statement after the vote. “The need for reform is overwhelming: not only the Department of Justice, but police reform advocates and the police themselves all recognize the need to better align our law with the rest of the country. And now a bipartisan fix is headed to the governor’s desk.
“If anything should be objective and reasonable, it should be the line that allows one person to take another’s life. The words ‘I thought’ should not be an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card for any defendant. Thanks to hard work by our partners in the legislature, and the voices of countless Delawareans, it won’t be anymore.”
Similarly, Senate Bill 148, which passed along party lines, would expand the power of the Delaware Department of Justice to review police use-of-force incidents that result in serious physical injury in addition to fatalities. It would also require the agency track the race of those involved and whether race played a factor in the incident.
The Senate, meanwhile, forwarded to the governor’s desk legislation that seeks to prohibit stores from offering single-use plastic bags.
Lawmakers banned plastic bags except for limited circumstances in 2019, with the change taking effect this year. However, some stores have seized on a loophole in the law that allows use of thicker plastic bags even if they are not intended to be reusable.
House Bill 212 would allow only reusable bags made of fabric to be handed out at retail stores. It contains exceptions for a couple of circumstances, such as plastic bags used to wrap meat or transport chemical pesticides.
Unlike its predecessor, it covers all retail establishments regardless of size.
The bill passed 11-10, with three Democrats crossing the aisle to oppose it. Republicans criticized the effort as hurting the tourism industry and hindering low-income Delawareans, with Minority Leader Gerald Hocker urging his colleagues to vote against the measure.
“Because of the bag bill shoplifting has really gone up in our stores,” said Sen. Hocker, an Ocean View Republican who owns two grocery stores in southeastern Sussex County.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 90% of plastic bags and similar items were not recycled in 2018, resulting in more than 3 million tons’ worth ending up in landfills. Per the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, landfills in the state see almost 2,400 tons of plastic bags every year.
“Choosing to move away from single-use plastics means choosing the long-term health of Delaware families over mere convenience,” Sen. Kyle Evans Gay, a Talleyville Democrat, said in a statement.
“We’ve all grown used to having these single-use bags around, but the truth is that they are piling up in landfills, clogging recycling machinery, polluting our environment, and even entering our food and water supply as microplastics. We can stop all of that by making the switch to reusables, an opportunity that I see as a moral obligation to future generations.”
The measure will take effect one year after being signed.
The Senate also unanimously passed legislation to strike from state law a provision that allows some individuals with disabilities to be paid less than minimum wage.
An existing statute authorizes the Department of Labor to set the wage floor for “individuals whose earning capacity is impaired by age or physical or mental deficiency or injury” below the minimum wage as the agency deems “necessary or appropriate to avoid hardship or prevent curtailment of opportunities for employment.” House Bill 122 would end that, instead directing the Employment First Commission to work with stakeholders and develop a plan for phasing out the lower wages.
The state minimum wage is currently $9.25, although under legislation approved earlier this month (but not yet signed), it will rise to $15 by 2025.
“Delaware currently uses an 83-year-old federal program that allows certain entities to pay employees with disabilities a sub-minimum wage. Employees are making an average of an $2/hour,” Rep. Debra Heffernan, a Bellefonte Democrat, said in a statement. “This is, plainly, not right. With this legislation, we aren’t just making promises, we are showing Delawareans with disabilities that there is value in their work and that they are deserving of the same economic protections as their peers.”
Also now awaiting action from Gov. Carney after Tuesday’s votes are measures to, among other things, provide free college tuition for foster youth, give homeless college students housing assistance, require police interrogations to be recorded and end the prosecution of children under age 12 except for the most serious charges.