Education, wage theft, mental health bills pass in final day of Delaware Legislature

By Joseph Edelen  and Matt McDonald
Posted 6/30/22

DOVER— June 30th is notorious for being the busiest day of the legislative session, and Thursday night was no different.

Both chambers of the General Assembly debated legislation until the …

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Education, wage theft, mental health bills pass in final day of Delaware Legislature

Posted

DOVER— June 30th is notorious for being the busiest day of the legislative session, and Thursday night was no different.

Both chambers of the General Assembly debated legislation until the sun went down at Legislative Hall, but not before legislators took an extended recess for party caucus, dinner and a visit from Mr. Softee.

The House of Representatives session began with the acknowledgment of two departing legislators, Rep. Bud Freel, D-Wilmington, and Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark. House leadership praised both men for their years of public service, with both men receiving an astounding round of applause from the entire House chamber.

After honoring Rep. Freel and Rep. Kowalko, and completing various concurrent resolutions, the House broke for party caucus. The House did not reconvene for over three and a half hours, and when they finally returned to the chamber, lawmakers got right into business.

‘Ban the Box’

The first bill considered was Senate Bill 13, which prevents schools from inquiring about students’ criminal history during the application or admissions process. The “Ban the Box” bill was passed by a vote of 25 for, 15 against, and one absent. SB 13 was primed for governor action, but an amendment introduced on Thursday that eliminated a cross-reference in the bill required additional Senate action.

Pension increases for state employees

Next on the agenda was Senate Substitution 1 for Senate Bill 14, which clarifies that pension increases for state employees who have served more than 20 years will be greater than those who served less. The bill was passed unanimously and awaits Senate action.

Wage theft

Afterwards, SS 1 for SB 35 with Senate Amendment 1, which specifies violations that would be considered as wage theft and clarifies penalties, was introduced to the House floor. The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark, was passed by a vote of 32 for and nine against, and is now ready for governor action.

“Circumventing state laws to pay people less or ‘under the table’ or to avoid paying their fair share of taxes is unfair to workers and to the state. It can have damaging effects if a worker sustains a workplace injury or needs unemployment compensation,” said Rep. Osienski. “By clearly defining wage theft, we will correct this issue and ensure that employers are meeting their obligations and not shortchanging workers or the state.”

Voting age and Governor’s Energy Advisory Council

Following the passage, a constitutional amendment to the Delaware Constitution was unanimously passed. The legislation, SB 294, would lower the voting age from 21 to 18 years old.

Moments later, SB 310 was brought to the floor. The legislation relates to the Governor’s Energy Advisory Council and clarifies membership of the council and their responsibilities. Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, said he did not support the bill and blamed the push for green energy as a contributing factor to the current recession.

“We’re in a recession right now in the U.S., and a lot of it would be because of this energy nonsense that we’re putting up with,” Rep. Collins said.

Standards for Delaware school facilities

SB 270, which would establish standards for evaluating the physical condition and quality of Delaware schools, was the next item up on the agenda. The bill would appoint the Department of Education and the Division of Public Health to set up tools for evaluating schools. Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Magnolia, asked the bill’s additional sponsor, Rep. Debra Heffernan, D-Bellefonte, could help him understand the process better. He was unsure what the process would be relating to the prioritization of school districts should they have an issue arise in a school evaluation. Rep. Heffernan said it would purely be up to the findings within the evaluations as it would be likely that some schools would need more timely assistance.

Although Rep. Heffernan attempted to alleviate Rep. Yearick’s concerns, he voted no on the bill, which passed by a vote of 33 for and seven against.

In the Senate, a series of bills passed, including:

Reducing court fees

House Bill 244 reduces some of the fees that can be leveled against a person in Delaware court. For example, it eliminates a fee assessed to anyone who is represented by a public defender in criminal proceedings, as well as a probation supervision fee. Such fees, the bill’s authors noted, disproportionately affect people who cannot afford to pay them.

Mental health

House Bills 300, 301 and 303 all deal with mental health, and are all sponsored by Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear.

HB 300 provides for mental health professionals including counselors and school psychologists to students grades 6 through 8 at Delaware public schools. Grades kindergarten through 5 already have additional mental health professionals through a very similar piece of legislation that is already law. It, too, was sponsored by Rep. Longhurst. HB 300 continues in much the same vein.

House Bill 301 would provide students grades kindergarten through 12 with mental health education.

House Bill 303, meanwhile, would require insurers to cover an annual behavior health wellness check.

School safety fund

House Bill 388 expands the ways in which money in the Delaware School Safety and Security Fund can be spent to include things such as lock down drills and violence prevention training. Constables and other law enforcement personnel could be hired with the funds under HB 388. Schools can already use the school safety and security funds to purchase door locks, motion detectors and other safety features.

The House and the Senate continued considering their respective agenda items past the publishing deadline.