Delaware General Assembly to remain virtual in the early going

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The Delaware General Assembly will kick off its 151st session virtually next month, leaders of the House and Senate announced.

The first day of the new legislative session will be Tuesday, Jan. 12, as mandated by the Delaware Constitution.

Representatives and Senators will gather in virtual meetings of their respective chambers to take their oaths of office, formally elect the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and adopt rules and procedures for conducting legislative business.

Opening day will be live-streamed on the General Assembly’s channels. Committee meetings and sessions of the full House and Senate throughout January will also be conducted virtually and live-streamed, with provisions to allow public participation during committee meetings.

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to take a brutal toll on families across Delaware, and after much discussion and deliberation, we determined that there was simply no way for the General Assembly to safely convene our new legislative session in person,” stated House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf. “Nevertheless, the people of Delaware elected us to do a job, and when January 12 gets here, we intend to get to work considering bills, holding committee hearings, voting on legislation and doing all the things that the General Assembly is expected to do, just in a different format.

“One silver lining to all of this is that the public will have more access than ever before to the business of the Legislature. Throughout the entire history of the Delaware General Assembly, if you wanted to deliver a public comment during a committee meeting, you had to be in that room in Legislative Hall. If you wanted to watch a roll-call vote, you had to be in the House or Senate chamber. But now, every committee meeting we hold, every floor debate we have, and every vote we take will be streamed live online.”

A virtual session plan was formulated and agreed upon by a bipartisan team of legislators and staff. Beyond January, this group will reevaluate the need to meet virtually, prioritize health and safety, and adhere to guidelines from public health experts.

“Starting the 151st General Assembly in a virtual format will not stop us from aggressively tackling the economic, public health, and racial justice issues the people of this state are facing on a daily basis,” Senate President Pro Tempore-Elect Dave Sokola said. “This pandemic has laid bare long-standing fractures in our society, and we will not let the fact that we’re unable to meet in person prevent us from making progress for Delawareans who can’t afford to wait any longer.”

Until recently, Delaware law required the General Assembly to meet in person in Legislative Hall to conduct business. However, the Legislature amended the state Constitution in 2018 to allow for the session to take place in alternate locations during an emergency.

In June of this year, the General Assembly conducted business virtually. It satisfied its Constitutional duties to prepare and pass the annual state budget bills, along with a small slate of urgent legislation and measures related to the pandemic. The inclusion of committee hearings in the Legislature’s virtual meeting plan will allow for consideration of a more robust agenda moving forward, a release from House Democrats slated.

Some Republicans have complained that the virtual sessions did not allow for adequate consideration of legislation, especially for bills brought up late in the session.

In November, Republicans lost ground in the state Senate, leading to concerns about Democrats holding a “supermajority” that might lead more controversial bills to move forward.

Legislative Hall will remain closed to the public.

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