DOVER — With the 151st session of the Delaware General Assembly convening Tuesday, a paid family leave program, divvying up the state’s $800 million worth of revenue and creating transparency for police records will likely be items of note.
“We got a lot done in the last session, and I think we can have a pretty productive session this time,” said Senate President Pro Tempore David Sokola, D-Newark, on Monday.
A big factor during the 2022 session will likely be the COVID-19 pandemic. Noting that the omicron variant is causing a spike in illness, Sen. Sokola said leadership plans to follow the science when it comes to in-person versus virtual lawmaking meetings.
“We’ve seen a kind of spike, and it’s forced us to reexamine how we hold session in a manner that’s safe for legislators, staff and the public,” he said. “We’re ready to go back in a hybrid, more virtual format.”
On Friday, Democratic leadership announced official plans for the session.
Sen. Sokola, along with House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf said House and Senate committees will meet virtually via Zoom in January, continuing the committee procedures started last year.
The House and Senate will meet in person at Legislative Hall on Thursdays to consider legislative agendas during January. On session days, a limited number of seats in the gallery of each chamber will be available to members of the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors will open one hour before voting is scheduled to begin on those days. Masks will be required.
Members of the public will be able to attend all virtual committee meetings and deliver comments on pending legislation.
“While I miss the normal activity of Legislative Hall, ensuring the health and safety of legislators, staff and the public is a top priority,” said Speaker Schwartzkopf. “Additionally, the work of the General Assembly is critical, and we want to reduce the chances of an outbreak, which could potentially cripple the operations of this branch of government. There are reasonable steps we can take in the short-term to protect everyone and continue our work. I am hopeful that this latest spike is temporary, and we will re-evaluate our plan for session before we return in March.”
Legislative proceedings will continue to be broadcast online via the General Assembly website, legis.delaware.gov.
“Fortunately, staff and legislators have worked hard over the last two years to make sure we can continue to consider legislation, allow public comment and work to improve the lives of Delaware’s working families while meeting virtually,” Sen. Sokola said in Friday’s press release. “My sincere hope is we can revisit these policies later in the year, but for now we all need to make decision that protect the health and welfare of our guests and employees.”
The senator said that, last year, offering a virtual option to the public often meant a greater number of participants than in years with solely in-person attendance. On the other side, not all state residents or all legislators have access to high-speed internet.
He added that lawmakers without the necessary technology would be able to come to Legislative Hall, if needed. “We have a couple legislators who don’t have a really good broadband connection from home.”
He said that sessions will likely be offered through hybrid format and that committee meetings will probably be 100% virtual, due to staffing concerns.
“We might have two or three committees going on at one time, and that could probably take more staff than we have to handle all those,” Sen. Sokola said.
Ideally, he said he’d like to see the Senate match up with the House of Representatives in terms of what’s conducted virtually, hybrid or in person.
GA’s decision to go online is about workplace safety.
“Legislators are people, too, and we have some people with young kids. Some of those kids are too young to be vaccinated,” Sen. Sokola said. “There’s all these other things that we’re trying to consider.”
He did note that most, if not all, of the legislators in the Senate are vaccinated and boosted, as are its staffers.
Joe Fulgham, director of Policy & Communications for the House Republican Caucus, said last week it’s disappointing that COVID-19 remains a factor.
“I think it’s safe to say that all of our members from all the caucuses wish that this was behind us and that we were coming into 2022 with a clean slate,” he said.
On Friday, after Democratic leaders announced how business would be conducted, he said, “While we would like the state legislature to return to the way it has traditionally operated, the current conditions involving the spread of COVID make that impractical and imprudent.”
“Hopefully, this latest spike is the virus’s last significant surge and we can return to normal operations later in the year.”
Paid family leave
Introduced by Sen. Sarah McBride, D-Wilmington, in May, the Healthy Delaware Families Act (Senate Bill 1) aims to create a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program that offers 12 weeks of job-protected time off to parents welcoming children, to caregivers of elderly parents or to those who become sick with a long-term illness like cancer.
Sen. Sokola said that, leading up to the session, Sen. McBride has met with business groups and the public to discuss the impact of a paid family leave initiative.
“She’s really embraced this and feels very strong that we need to try and make a difference in this area,” he said.
Sen. Sokola said the program is modeled after other states’. The proposal in Delaware would mean workers could receive up to 80% of their average weekly wages.
In New Jersey, where a similar law has been in place for 12 years, Sen. Sokola said there’s been higher morale and lower turnover for businesses.
During a roundtable in Dover in December, Sen. McBride said state-run paid leave programs also help level the playing field between small businesses and larger, national ones.
State Treasurer Colleen C. Davis, also speaking at the December event, agreed.
“It makes it so that, ... as small-business owners, we can attract talented, young, invigorated people, as well as seasoned, experienced and amazing employees,” she said.
Revenue and tax credits
While both sides of the aisle agree that it’s a good thing the state has about $800 million in revenue, how best to use that money is another conversation.
Noting that Delaware legislators have tried to balance cautious spending with making sure there is enough for a rainy day, Sen. Sokola said Sen. Trey Paradee, D-Dover, chairman of the Finance Committee, is “very focused on getting a responsible budget done.”
Calling the revenue an “amazing amount of money,” Mr. Fulgham said Republicans were disappointed that the current fiscal year budget, enacted in July, didn’t include tax cuts.
“There was no consideration given to returning some of the surplus to taxpayers,” he said. “We’re looking at our state’s revenue estimates continuing to increase in the current and upcoming fiscal years. We’re saying some of this money has got to be returned to taxpayers. It’s the responsible thing to do.”
Along similar lines, House Bill 108 seeks to restore the senior citizen real property tax credit to $500. The credit was reduced to $400 in 2017 due to budget shortfalls, but Mr. Fulgham said the bill, filed in February, will be pushed by Republicans for approval this year.
“We’d like to see it restored and get that $100 back,” he said.
Mr. Fulgham also spoke about HB 171, which aims to lower the realty transfer tax from 4% to 3%. The rate was raised in 2017.
Police accountability, gun control
A carry-over from last year, there also will be discussion about reforming the First State’s Law-Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, Sen. Sokola said.
“There seems to be a lot of consensuses that there needs to be greater transparency and great public accountability,” he said. “There are some differences on what exactly that means, but I’m cautiously optimistic.”
He went on to praise Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, D-Wilmington, for holding meetings with stakeholder groups and for talking with people regarding LEOBOR reforms.
“I think we’re closer. I don’t think we’re there yet,” Sen. Sokola said. “I think there is a consensus that we need to do something. There’s not a consensus of what that is, but I think we’re getting closer.”
In terms of gun control, he said the Senate’s permit-to-purchase bill will have a positive impact, if passed.
“In the states that do have it, there are definitely fewer suicides,” he said. “I think that it’s definitely going to have a big impact, if we can pass it.”
Mr. Fulgham said House Republicans would like to see movement with HB 253, introduced in late June. The bill more narrowly defines the term “firearm” in Delaware law.
“The Delaware definition for firearms is oddly broad,” he said. “To the point that a firearm, under Delaware law, is pretty much defined as anything, any device launching any object by any means.”
He said a firearm could be a crossbow, BB gun or slingshot. The bill aims to align Delaware’s definition with the federal one.
Other business from last year
As far as other carry-overs from last year, Mr. Fulgham said there are voting bills that have not seen movement.
“A couple of these, we don’t even view them as partisan in any way,” he said. “We’re kind of like scratching our heads as to why they haven’t gotten any consideration in committee.”
One of those is HB 188, which he said seeks to increase penalties for voter fraud, adding that those have not been updated in years.
“Right now, people found guilty of illegally voting can face a fine of as little as $50,” he said. “We’re saying, in those rare instances when you come across an issue of voting fraud, it should be treated like the serious crime that it is.”
Mr. Fulgham also referred to HB 187, which seeks to reform identification standards for absentee ballot requests.
On the Senate side is SB 101, which looks to reform eviction proceedings. As it stands, Sen. Sokola said filing to evict someone in Delaware is relatively inexpensive ($45). The bill would increase that fee.
“We realize it’s not the easiest business to run, but often, evictions impact children,” he said. “Sometimes, children have to change schools. There’s all these little nuance things that add to the burden to families who, sometimes, through no fault of their own, are on hard times.”
On Thursday, Sen. Lockman introduced legislation to help expand rental housing options for some of Delaware’s lowest wage earners, vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities.
Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 167 would create a mitigation fund to offset certain expenses landlords say they incur when they accept tenants supported by government-sponsored rental assistance programs.
“Stable housing is the key to improved quality of life and opportunity. Housing assistance programs exist specifically to help people at serious risk of ending up on our streets, in our homeless shelters or our emergency rooms without these subsidies,” said Sen. Lockman, D-Wilmington, said in a press release.
“Yet many voucher recipients struggle to find housing because the owners of many rental properties are unwilling to deal with some of the strings that come with state and federal assistance programs,” she said. “The goal of this legislation is to ease that burden by providing a financial backstop that will help alleviate those concerns and open more housing opportunities for those who need them most.”
Roughly 6,500 people in Delaware currently receive rental assistance through either the federally funded Housing Choice Voucher Program or the state-funded State Rental Assistance Program due to their income, a disability, previous military service or involvement with the foster care system.
Introduced by Sen. Lockman in March 2021, Senate Bill 90 sought to eliminate the legal exemption for landlords who refuse to rent to families who hold vouchers.
“I heard a lot of feedback from landlords after I sponsored SB 90, including many who accept vouchers, about the added costs that come with state and federal housing assistance programs,” she said. “SS 1 for SB 167 should help take those concerns off the table and help remove any remaining impediments that might be preventing landlords from accepting tenants based entirely on the source of their rental payments.”
Under SS 1 for SB 167, landlords would be able to file reimbursement claims for eligible expenses from the Landlord Mitigation Fund, a program administered by the Delaware State Housing Authority (DSHA) and financed through a combination of available state funds, federal pandemic relief money and other sources.
Those expenses would include lost rental income due to delays in the public housing authority inspection process, one month’s rent of lost income due to a tenant vacating a rental without notice, damages in excess of a security deposit and improvement costs required by a public housing authority inspection.
Another bill filed Thursday would continue the additional relief being provided to tens of thousands of Delawareans who have lost their jobs and businesses impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sponsored by Rep. Ed Osienski and Sen. Jack Walsh, House Bill 285 would exempt unemployment benefits paid in 2021 from Delaware state income tax, maintain the new employer tax rates at 2020 levels, and reduce the unemployment tax assessment rate for merit-rated employers to the lowest of their earned rates for 2020, 2021 and 2022.
“During this pandemic, thousands of hard-working Delawareans lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Although many have returned to work or found new jobs, they are still struggling with the financial difficulties brought on by being unemployed,” said Rep. Osienski, D-Brookside, the lead sponsor of the bill, in a press release. “Exempting the unemployment benefits that have been a lifeline to so many families will mean that they aren’t blindsided when they file their state taxes this year.
“We also have numerous businesses that already have faced monumental challenges during the pandemic, so we want to be sure they aren’t penalized with higher taxes or facing even more difficulties related to unemployment claims.
The state Division of Unemployment Insurance processed more 185,000 claims each of the past two fiscal years, nearly six times the claims received and processed in 2019. Since March 2020 through December 2021, the division paid 107,195 people more than $1.5 billion in UI benefits, compared to about $67 million in 2019.
Federal pandemic benefits expired in September.
“The Delaware General Assembly last year provided roughly $25 million in tax relief to Delaware families and businesses whose livelihoods have been negatively impacted by the pandemic” said Sen. Walsh, D-Stanton, the lead Senate sponsor of the bill, in a press release. “As we enter our third year of this public health emergency, we owe it to those Delawareans and the small businesses that make up the backbone of our economy to continue that tax relief for at least another year.”
HB 285 also would hold the taxable wage base at $14,500 for 2022, which would reduce the amount of wages on which employers pay unemployment tax assessments into the UI Trust Fund for 2022. It also would extend the Department of Labor secretary’s ability to issue emergency rules amending the Delaware Unemployment Insurance Code to deal with the effects of COVID-19 and implement federal programs providing unemployment benefits to respond to COVID-19.
“Delaware families have been through a lot over the past two years.
And while we have significantly expanded unemployment benefits to support Delaware workers and families who have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis, we shouldn’t then turn around and tax workers on that income,” said Gov. Carney. “This legislation will help support working Delaware families as well as businesses impacted by COVID-19. Thank you to all the members of the General Assembly making this a priority for legislative session.”
The General Assembly initially granted this authority in 2021, but it is slated to expire at the end of March. HB 285 would extend this authority until December 2022.
Another pending item in the House is a “relatively minor bill,” Mr. Fulgham said, that would allow Delawareans to order directly from a winery. He said there are similar laws in place in other states, but Delaware, Utah and Mississippi are the only ones that do not allow such sales.
“It’s a relatively minor issue for many people who obviously have bigger things to deal with, but the General Assembly deals with big issues and small issues,” Mr. Fulgham said.