Delaware legislature shuts down for ‘foreseeable future’
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DOVER – The Delaware legislature is shutting down amid the response to the coronavirus pandemic that is stressing social distancing, leaders announced Wednesday evening.
In a statement, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf and Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride said the Delaware General Assembly is postponing its legislative session until further notice.
The legislature was originally scheduled to reconvene Tuesday but was postponed last week due to the spread of COVID-19 and recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and Delaware public health officials. Leaders had initially said that they would reassess whether to reopen the legislature on a weekly basis, but they now clearly believe the closure will last much longer.
“As the situation has continued to unfold, it has become necessary to postpone the session for the foreseeable future as officials assess the extent of Delaware’s exposure to the virus. While it is possible the session could resume normal operations at some point in the future, there is no firm date at this time. Legislative leaders will continue to examine the situation with input from public health experts and executive branch agencies to determine the best path forward,” officials wrote in a release on the lawmaker’s decision.
Schwartzkopf and McBride noted that the General Assembly is preparing plans that will be used in the event lawmakers must reconvene quickly to pass legislation that addresses the effects of the coronavirus on Delawareans and state government.
Additionally, the General Assembly is constitutionally required to pass an operating budget by June 30, and plans are being discussed to meet that obligation should this state of emergency stretch well into the spring. A Democratic Senate spokesman said that those plans include the possibility of limited in-person voting, phone conference votes, and other ideas. Under Article XVII of the state’s Constitution, the General Assembly has wide latitude in creating rules during an emergency to ensure the proper operation of government without delay.
The most difficult question to answer is how to allow public comment or observation during the process – Delaware does not record, much less livestream, its legislative debates. That fact had drawn calls this session to put Delaware on the path of streaming debate online, which many other states already do. Currently the public must be in attendance at Legislative Hall in Dover to hear the debate, but the statehouse remains closed due to the virus’s outbreak.
What happens to the remainder of the non-budget-related lawmaking work done in Dover remains to be seen. Most bills currently are awaiting action in House or Senate committees before votes are cast on the floor. The Senate spokesman said that the legislature is currently only concerned about how to complete the debate on the state’s budget, with some individual bills concerning health care costs possibly also being considered, but most bills may not advance this year. With an election set for November, it’s possible that many of the legislature’s members won’t be returning for the 2021 session.
By Jacob Owens