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Delaware: A House Divided

From: Kathleen Rutherford, Executive Director, A Better Delaware

With another legislative session now behind us, we can reflect on a year of virtual meetings in which not every voice was heard, higher-than-ever right versus left conflict and the biggest budget in Delaware’s history.

This session, Democrats held a three-fifths majority in both the House and Senate, making it nearly impossible for any GOP-led legislation to ever get off the ground. To put it into perspective – all but ten percent (five out of nearly 50) of the bills Governor John Carney signed into law this session had a Democrat as the primary sponsor.

It seems hard to believe that politics were not at play with these numbers, considering that at least 11 Republican House bills never received floor consideration. “To see those bills not fail on merit or because of discussion and dialogue but because of what I see as partisan politics is not only very frustrating but it’s very disappointing,” Rep. Bryan Shupe said. He had three bills that did not receive floor consideration.

In some cases, bills did not receive consideration due to an unwillingness on the side of the Democrats to hear ideas other than their own. According to Joseph Fulgham, communications officer of the Delaware House Republican Caucus. “Bills were not considered because of, and in retribution for the Republican vote against House Bill 75,” he said. “It is not unusual for Republican bills to either be held hostage or in some kind of vindictiveness to not consider Republican bills in retaliation for a Republican vote that the Democrats didn’t like for one reason or another.”

In an effort to help small businesses survive, Republicans proposed six amendments to Senate Bill 15 which will raise the minimum wage to $15. Without hesitation, Democrats unanimously voted down each amendment.

It was not just the voices of Republican legislators that were not heard. With Legislative Hall closed to the public for more than 400 days and public comments limited in to 1 or 2 minutes during virtual hearings, many Delawareans didn’t have a say in the bills passed or signed into law, this session. The Democrats’ unwillingness to transition back to in-person meetings and hearings was seen by some as a resistance to lessening the control they had while proceedings remained virtual. “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.

Controversial gun bills were also passed virtually after public comment on the legislation was handled poorly with citizens denied permission to speak or cut off when given the opportunity to do so.

This rocky road of limited public participation even spurred former GOP gubernatorial candidate, Julianne Murray, to file a lawsuit regarding virtual legislation.

In addition to issues with public comment, there was also confusion regarding schedules and agendas which made it impossible for the public to know when to join a meeting or which meeting to join – some of which seemed intentional. The majority-Democrat Senate Joint Sunset Committee scheduled a meeting for Senate Bill 130 on a Tuesday rather than the usual Wednesday meeting time and only posted the meeting notification less than an hour before its start. This scheduling “mishap” raised enough red flags for the Public Integrity Commission to write an opinion piece in the News Journal to bring it to the public’s attention.

While it’s easy to focus on the simple fact of who held power in the General Assembly, the most important aspect of a legislative session is how it will affect Delawareans and it seems that this session fell short of citizens’ needs and best interests and has come up short.

One of the most notable shortcomings was the tabling of House Bill 49, a proposal that would limit the governor’s emergency orders to 30 days without approval by the General Assembly. Rep. Collins introduced the bill back in January as a step to end the COVID-spurred State of Emergency, but the bill was tabled the same day it was introduced.

There is no telling what the impact would have been had this bill gotten momentum, but if passed, businesses and schools may have had the option to open their doors post- COVID sooner than they did. It seems likely the State of Emergency would have been lifted sooner as thousands of Delawareans protested the lockdown for months before the reopening.

During a year headlined by the pandemic, more Delawareans than ever have needed their hard-earned dollars to stay afloat, and this year’s historically heathy budget would have been a great opportunity for the government to put money directly back into taxpayers’ pockets.  But instead,  the General Assembly passed the bond bill, which contains a $1.35 billion spending package, a more than 50% increase in spending than last year. Rep. Lyndon Yearick has been vocal against this aspect of the budget saying, “I think it’s rather disingenuous, coming out of a pandemic, with plenty of Delawareans still suffering – who have lost jobs, that have had their businesses suffer – that we’ve added (so much) to this.”

Alternative avenues to put money back in taxpayers’ pockets to spend how they see fit, were explored by Republicans. All were denied any consideration. One option was House Bill 191, introduced by Rep. Collins, which sought to cut all personal income tax brackets by 10%, cut the corporate tax rate from 8.7% to 6.1% and the gross receipts tax by 50%. It fell one vote short of being passed to the full House. The second was House Bill 71, introduced by Rep. Mike Ramone, which would lower the real estate transfer tax from 4% to 3%. Currently, Delaware has the highest state realty transfer tax in the nation which means fewer Delawareans can afford homes and those selling a home have less equity to move forward themselves. Simply put, the passage of this bill would be both a win for citizens and the government alike.

The strange pandemic legislative session is over. Let us hope next year’s session will be less about partisan agendas, and more about transparency and a willingness to serve all Delawareans through legislation.