State Law Makers Call For Return To In-Person Meetings At Legislative Hall

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Citing last week’s contentious Senate committee hearings, and dramatically rising COVID-19 inoculation rates, House and Senate Republican leaders have called for the Delaware General Assembly to resume actual public committee meetings and floor action.

It has been more than a year since the state legislature stopped meeting at Legislative Hall to help curtail the spread of COVID-19. While the House and Senate have met virtually, and held online committee meetings, General Assembly Republicans point to last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on two controversial gun control bills as proof of the flawed system.

“I found that meeting to be disturbing,” said State Senate Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn (R-Georgetown), who sits on the committee. “Citizens testifying before us were given one-minute to provide testimony, were often cut off in mid-sentence, and were not allowed to engage members of the committee. Proponents of virtual meetings say they allow greater transparency and participation. That’s not without merit, yet the dark flipside of virtual meetings is that they allow legislators to wield more control. They are able to keep citizens at arm’s length, distancing themselves from the weight of emotional testimony that could not be denied were they in the same room. As it is, committee chairs don’t even have to look at citizens because they have the option of cutting off their video feed. Virtual meetings facilitate the discourteous treatment of citizens. That is unacceptable at any time, but even more so when there is no reason we cannot meet in-person.”

State House Minority Whip Tim Dukes (R-Laurel) agreed, saying the time has come for lawmakers to return. “In the same week that all Delawareans, age 16 and older, can sign-up to get vaccinated, it seems appropriate for the legislature to set a hard date to again meet where the members of the public can witness our proceedings and impact the process by testifying and meeting with their elected officials.”

Delaware’s efforts to safeguard the public from COVID-19 have produced results. Thus far, 177,694 people have been fully vaccinated, while another 160,985 people have at least partial immunization by having received the first dose of a two-shot vaccine. Additionally, nearly 91,000 Delawareans have some measure of acquired natural immunity after having had confirmed cases of the virus.

“In mid-December, House and Senate Republicans issued a joint statement asking that contentious legislation not be worked in the General Assembly until citizens could again attend committee meetings and have face-to-face interactions with their legislators,” said State Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker (R-Ocean View). “That lasted only a few weeks before Senate Democrats started seeing the current situation as a prime opportunity to fast-track their Progressive agenda. They already passed the $15 an hour minimum wage hike, and two major gun rights infringement bills though our chamber, with more on the horizon. 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.”

State House Minority Leader Danny Short (R-Seaford) said returning to in-person committee meetings can be done safely, observing proper anti-viral protocols. “There are large meeting spaces in and around Dover that can accommodate the House and Senate committee meetings and floor action, allowing the public to participate, while observing social distancing, mask-wearing, and other prudent practices. The ballrooms at Dover Downs would be perfect for this, but there are other large indoor spaces that could equally be put to use.

Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) and President Pro Tem David Sokola (D-Newark) have total control over setting the conditions for bringing their respective chambers back into session. All four Republican leaders said both men need to resume in-person legislative action.

“There is no health-related, technical, or logistical barrier to meeting in-person that cannot be addressed and overcome in the next few weeks,” Sen. Pettyjohn said. “If we do not set a hard date to resume action, I believe it will be due to reasons that have nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with controlling public debate.”

The legislature is currently on its Easter Break and will return to session on April 20th.

Souce:Delaware State House of Representatives, Republican Caucus

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