Leaders of the Republican caucuses in the Delaware House of Representatives and State Senate Wednesday pressed for the resumption of in-person meetings at Legislative Hall, which has been closed to the public for a year.
Democratic leaders, in their responses, said they will reopen when it’s safe and science will guide the decision.
A Senate Judiciary Committee virtual hearing on two gun-related measures March 31st has been driving GOP leaders to seek to welcome the public back to Legislative Hall when lawmakers resume the session following a two-week break.
In a statement, Senate Minority Whip Brian Pettyjohn, R- Georgetown, Judiciary Committee member, said:
“I found that meeting to be disturbing. 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.”
“There is no health-related, technical, or logistical barrier to meeting in-person that cannot be addressed and overcome in the next few weeks. 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.”
House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, said if space is still a concern there are ways to have some members of the public present:
“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.“
House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach and Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, issued this statement:
“On March 29, we met with House Republican leaders and discussed tentative plans for a phased-in return to in-person legislative session this year. We asked for their input and we had a productive conversation. Rep. Short and Rep. Dukes thanked us and agreed with the preliminary plans. So we’re deeply disappointed to see the Republican leadership ignore this collaborative process in their comments to the press. It’s especially frustrating because they know they can call us anytime and discuss concerns they have rather than sending statements to the media.“
“Since the pandemic began, we have involved the minority caucus in decisions about House operations. In those meetings, they tell us they appreciate the effort. In public, they try to score political points and claim they’re being railroaded. 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. This is why we have taken precautions such as the virtual session, which has allowed for record public participation in our committee hearings. That is why we are encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, because the sooner everyone has been inoculated, the sooner we can begin to return to a recognizable legislative session. Currently, less than 20% of Delawareans have been fully vaccinated, so we have to continue those efforts.”
The following statement was issued by Senate President Pro Tempore David Sokola, D-Newark, Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, D-Bear/Newark, and Senate Majority Whip Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, D-Wilmington:
“We are all eager to return to in-person meetings in Legislative Hall when it is safe to do so.
But the Minority Party’s suggestion that we cannot or should not continue our work before that happens flies in the face of what Delawareans demanded at the ballot box last fall.
Delawareans have been asked to make dramatic changes in how they conduct business, and they’ve adapted time and time again. They deserve the same nimbleness from their elected representatives.
Our virtual legislative session has resulted in unprecedented public involvement as evidenced by last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee, which may have been the most well-attended committee meeting in the history of the Delaware General Assembly. More than 800 people were able to attend that meeting – four times the fire code occupancy limit of the largest room in Legislative Hall. Public comment was strictly held to one minute per person for people on both sides of the debate, specifically so we could hear from as many people as possible.
Thousands of constituents also have communicated with members of the General Assembly on gun safety issues by email, by telephone and in person over the last several years.
Each and every one of those Delawareans had a chance to participate in the legislative process without anyone having their health or safety put at risk by someone who refuses to admit COVID-19 is real, refuses to be vaccinated, or refuses to take the most basic precaution to protect themselves and their neighbors.
Again, we will return to the Legislative Hall when it is safe.
In the meantime, we will not be bullied into delaying legislation broadly supported by Delawareans of both political parties. We will not be bullied into putting the public’s health at risk. And we will not be dissuaded from governing, especially at a time when Delaware is just beginning to recover from this pandemic.”