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The Delaware General Assembly starts session Tuesday. What you need to know.

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

The Delaware General Assembly will start its 2021 legislative session on Tuesday, beginning what could be one of the most demanding periods in the history of the state.

The Democrat-controlled 62-person Delaware General Assembly will spend the next six months grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a backlog of postponed legislation from a truncated 2020 session.

Lawmakers also have to grapple with the decline in revenue due to the pandemic, a growing call for police reform and racial justice, and a lawsuit settlement that will force the state to increase school funding.

All of it piles on an increasingly polarized Statehouse.

Several incoming progressive Democrats usurped longtime, moderate incumbents in the September primary election on the promise to abolish the General Assembly's compromise-driven, closed-door traditions known as the "Delaware Way."

So it means they will likely butt heads with tenured members of their own party despite presenting a unified front.

At the same time, some of the General Assembly's centrist Republicans were ousted by Democrats in November, pushing the minority party further to the right as President Donald Trump appears to be assuming a new role as a shadow president, tightening his grip on Republican voters and their elected officials who remain loyal to him despite losing his formal powers as chief executive later this month.

Delaware Legislative Hall, Dover

It could lead to a clash over controversial issues, such as gun control or a higher minimum wage, that have roiled the legislative branch in the past. Democrats overall gained two seats in the Senate after the November election while some Democratic-held seats have been filled by less moderate lawmakers, which could be enough to tip the scales and move progressive-minded bills that, before this year, were only a few votes shy of passing.

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That's on top of a new round of leaders in the Senate after the upper chamber's highest-ranking Democrat, Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride of New Castle, lost his seat to 30-year-old social worker Marie Pinkney in September.

The top title of Senate president pro tempore, which allows control of when and if bills are voted on, has been given to Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, who has been friendly to progressive policies in recent years. He's joined by Senate Majority Leader-elect Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, and Senate Majority Whip-elect Tizzy Lockman, D-Wilmington.

Senate President Pro Tempore-Elect David Sokola, D-Newark

According to House leadership, pandemic relief will be at the top of the General Assembly's agenda. Other pandemic-related bills, including one to allow vote-by-mail for future elections, will also be on the table. Lawmakers passed a bill last year to allow voting by mail only for 2020 elections for those who didn't want to risk virus exposure at the polls, and this next bill could make that option permanent.

"It’s going to be COVID, COVID, COVID," said House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear. "And businesses, bringing the businesses back."

House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear

That includes a bill to give extra financial relief to the tens of thousands of people who got unemployment benefits last year after Carney's state of emergency order forced businesses across the state to shut down to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The yet-to-be-filed bill, originally proposed by Carney's office, would prevent those people from having to pay state taxes on any unemployment benefits they received in 2020, according to a spokesman for the governor.

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Lawmakers plan on passing that bill in the first three weeks of the session because debates and committee meetings will be interrupted by budget talks that will last all of February and early March. Lawmakers will go on a break during that time.

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By the spring, when lawmakers return to the floor, they're expected to take up long-debated issues that they have historically struggled to come to a consensus on.

Delaware is feeling more pressure than ever to legalize marijuana after New Jersey voters in November overwhelmingly approved it in their own state, making it more likely that First State residents will drive across the bridge and funnel tax revenue to the state next door.

In the November 2020 elections, four different states voted to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes -- Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota. Once those initiatives go into effect, there will be 15 U.S. states where adults can buy and use cannabis legally.

Lawmakers have already been on the verge of permitting the plant as stigma wanes, and some Democrats argue the revenue is needed now more than ever as the economy continues to suffer through the pandemic. The bill sponsor, Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark, expects that the challenge for lawmakers this year won't be finding enough support for legal weed, but instead coming to a consensus on how to spend the money it reins in.

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Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour will also be back on the table after Democrats failed to move the proposal out of the Senate last session. Sen. Jack Walsh, D-Stanton, is said to be working on a bill that will gradually raise the state's minimum wage from $9.25 to $15 per hour, likely over a period several years.

Police reform will also be on the table, though it's unclear what legislation will surface from a recently formed police accountability task force. The task force was created by the General Assembly shortly after violent protests erupted in Wilmington and Dover at the end of May following the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Hundreds gathered at Legislative Hall in Dover to protest police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Dover.

It's a sensitive subject in any state, but especially in the Delaware Legislature filled with several ex-officers and police-affiliated lawmakers, including in leadership. It's unclear if those lawmakers, who have advocated for the wishes of police unions, will come to an agreement with their progressive-minded colleagues who demand more aggressive accountability and transparency measures for law enforcement.

Lawmakers could end up filing bills based on the task force's meetings as early as March, according to Longhurst. That's on top of criminal justice and racial justice reform that lawmakers have also pledged to tackle this year.

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The General Assembly is also expected to return to debating gun control after progressives last session failed to pass three bills that would have banned certain semi-automatic weapons, capped to the size of magazines that hold more than 15 rounds and required a permit to buy and own a gun.

One of those bills was sponsored by Sokola, the new Senate president pro tempore. Two Senate leaders who were part of the committee that blocked those gun control bills from a floor vote lost their seats in November and were replaced by pro-gun control Democrats.

Senate President Pro Tempore-Elect David Sokola, D-Newark

Delaware lawmakers will likely be under more scrutiny than ever before in their careers. After 10 months of virus-related restrictions, racial tensions, economic turmoil and increased urgency for a vaccine, the population as a whole is perhaps more invested in their state government now than ever before in modern American history.

All of it will come to the forefront as lawmakers will return to floor and committee debates via Zoom due to social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual meetings will be livestreamed on the General Assembly's website for the viewing of state residents who, until last year, had little access to their state's legislative process unless they could carve out an afternoon to travel to the Dover Statehouse.

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But for lawmakers themselves, the virtual meetings are posing new hurdles that could hamper the pace at which bills are made even as the throng of old and new political issues culminate into a "perfect storm," according to Sen. Sokola.

"There’s a little bit of a challenge in even getting bills drafted when we’re not able to sit down and work with our attorneys face to face sometimes," Sokola said.

Legislative Hall at the Delaware State Capitol in Dover has been closed to the public since the spring to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in its halls.

Lawmakers will also grapple with a budget during an unpredictable, pandemic-era economy. Carney will propose his budget to lawmakers on Jan. 28 based on an ever-changing revenue forecast. The Delaware Financial Advisory Council, which reports revenue projections, last met in December and will meet again multiple times this year to finalize revenue expectations. The forecast could drastically fluctuate between now and the end of the fiscal year, June 30, when lawmakers have to pass a budget.

"There’s a lot we don’t know," Sokola said, adding that he hopes the relief bill that Congress passed last month will allow "a little more stability" between now and June.

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While revenue projections have improved since they first kamikazed at the start of the pandemic, the state is still forecasting a loss compared with normal years that lawmakers and the governor will have to craft the budget around.

"We have an opportunity to grow the base budget, and I’m sure the governor’s recommended budget will make proposals to do that," said Finance Secretary Rick Geisenberger, adding that revenues can be volatile depending on the year. "A lot of this money will be one-time revenue that will have to go into one-time infrastructure investments and restoration of our reserves."

Gov. John Carney, left, and Finance Secretary Rick Geisenberger

The state will probably decide to spend a lot of that "one-time revenue" on non-recurring expenses, including $50 million for clean water infrastructure that lawmakers failed to pay for last year, as well as putting some money back into the savings pools that lawmakers dipped into last year to shore up the pandemic's toll on revenues. The conservative approach has been the Carney administration's philosophy since the governor took office four years ago.

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Some Democratic lawmakers have been more eager than Carney to spend extra money when it lands in their lap, and incoming freshman Democrats could have similar ideas for spending this session — especially as businesses, schools and jobless constituents continue to struggle during the pandemic. Progressives also plan to push for higher wages and paid parental leave, as well as universal pre-K.

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“We want to do things that are proactive instead of just continuing to look to see what other states are doing," said incoming freshman Pinkney, who ousted the top senator this past election and is part of the growing progressive faction of lawmakers.

"Getting things through the budget is going to be difficult. I don’t believe that it’s impossible, but I know that that’s a battle that we’re going to have to prepare ourselves for, because a lot of these new ideas are going to cost money."

Marie Pinkney will be sworn in as a senator on Tuesday after defeating Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk's Nest, for his seat in New Castle.

Geisenberger warned that the state started 2020 crafting a budget on a forecast of $200 million extra dollars, which plummeted by March.

"The pandemic’s unpredictable — and what happens in the pandemic is unpredictable — and that’s another reason for us to be cautious as we go through the next few months," Geisenberger said.

How to watch the General Assembly

Committee meetings and floor debates will be livestreamed and archived on the General Assembly's website at legis.delaware.gov.

Members of the public can offer comment on bills by registering for each meeting that will be posted on the website's committee meetings page at legis.delaware.gov/CommitteeMeetings. That page also has information about when lawmakers will hold committee meetings and what bills each meeting will cover.

Committee meeting notices will be posted by the end of the day on the Thursday before to the week they are scheduled.

Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.