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As Assembly proceeds, debate flares over in-person hearings

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House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) recently announced that the House will hold in-person meetings starting April 29. | DBT FILE PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

DOVER – As Delaware slowly eases pandemic restrictions, the state’s most powerful lawmakers are fiercely debating when to reopen Legislative Hall to the public – an issue that recently culminated in a federal lawsuit after two gun-reform bills cleared the Senate in a virtual vote.

For more than a year now, Delaware lawmakers have been drafting and passing bills online due to the coronavirus pandemic. Several of those efforts – including a renewed push for a $15 minimum wage and expanding paid family and medical leave – could impact businesses across the state.

The House of Representatives announced Friday that it will convene a hybrid session for floor votes and party caucuses on April 29 – the last day of the current legislative session. The Senate is also working on an in-person return to the chamber on May 11 when lawmakers reconvene, with social distancing in place.

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) stated that Legislative Hall will remain closed to the public, a move opposed by House and Senate Republicans as both caucuses call for a full reopening of the legislature.

GOP leadership pointed to large venues in Dover they said could safely accommodate both lawmakers and the public under COVID-19 protocols, while maintaining virtual access to meetings.

“If hundreds of people can safely patronize the unstructured environment of a big box store, and hundreds-of-thousands of Delawareans can attend school and go to work daily, we should be able to safely conduct public floor debates and committee meetings in a controlled, secured, and monitored setting,” State House Minority Leader Danny Short (R-Seaford) said in a recent statement.

Democratic lawmakers say they are following the guidance of public health experts and prioritizing the safety of everyone involved before opening the chamber to the public.

“We are committed to safely reconvening in person while preserving the record virtual public engagement we have seen in recent months,” said Scott Goss, a Senate Democratic Caucus spokesperson, in an email, citing a recent rise in COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations, even as Delawareans continue to get vaccinated.

House Democrats said they came to a tentative agreement with Republican leaders last month for a phased-in reopening plan, but after the Democrat-controlled Senate passed its gun-reform bills March 31, some Republicans accused Democrats of using the online forum for their own political gain.

“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,” said State Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker (R-Ocean View) in an April 7 statement.

During a committee meeting on the gun-reform bills, the House GOP said Senate Democrats handled public comments in a “poor way.”

A week after those bills cleared the Senate, Julianne Murray, a Sussex County lawyer and former GOP gubernatorial candidate, filed a federal lawsuit seeking to restore in-person legislative meetings and invalidate all bills passed under the current General Assembly due to “serious constitutional violations.”

The 16-page complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware on April 9, argues that the General Assembly’s virtual forum restricts the public from participating in the legislative process.

Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long was sued in federal court over the decision to keep Legislative Hall closed to the public for the 2021 session to date. | DBT FILE PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Julianne Murray, who was defeated by Gov. John Carney in the 2020 election, is representing five Delaware residents in the suit against Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long and General Assembly leaders from both parties. Murray also represented her husband in a lawsuit last year against Carney’s pandemic-related restrictions on short-term rentals.

“While I cannot assess the merits of the lawsuit, House and Senate Republicans agree with the objective,” Short said in an April 9 statement.

The five plaintiffs, including Delaware Gun Rights president Mitch Denham, claim they were “denied” the opportunity to testify against the gun control bills during a committee hearing.

Under Senate Bill 3, anyone purchasing a handgun would first need to obtain a permit from the state, take a firearms training course and be fingerprinted. Senate Bill 6 would ban large-capacity magazines with more than 17 rounds of ammunition.

More than 800 people – four times the fire code occupancy limit of the largest room in Legislative Hall – participated in the virtual meeting for both bills, which now head to the Democrat-controlled House. The complaint states that 30 to 40 people were able to testify on each bill.

House Democrats commended it as possibly “the most well-attended committee meeting in the history of the Delaware General Assembly,” but some Republican leaders say they were upset by the one-minute cap on public comments and folks who were cut off when they went over the time limit. Democrats say those limits were set so they could hear from as many people on both sides of the debate.

Senate Judiciary Chair Darius Brown said that all committee hearings – both in-person and virtual – have time limits, and members of the public who aren’t able to speak can submit written testimony.

Hocker called the online-only forum a “prime opportunity” for Senate Democrats “to fast-track their Progressive agenda.”

Virtual meetings aside, the Democratic Party came to a three-fifths majority in both chambers during the pandemic, which may allow them to move legislation more quickly.

“The real issue here is not with the committee process,” Brown said in a recent op-ed published in Delaware State News. “The real issue is that the opponents of these measures failed to win seats in the Legislature, failed to bottle up these bills in committee a second time, failed to defeat them on the floor of the Senate and are now sowing mistrust over the process to explain it all to their supporters.”

In a joint statement, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf and House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst said the percentage of Delawareans who are fully vaccinated is still too low for the General Assembly to fully return.

“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,” the House leaders stated in April. “This is why we have taken precautions such as the virtual session, which has allowed for record public participation in our committee hearings.”

The legislature will return to session April 20 after a two-week break. Virtual committee meetings are scheduled for April 20-21 and April 27-28. A virtual floor session will be held on April 22 for House votes on legislation.

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