Delaware lawmakers are set to begin a new legislative session with the promise of fresh debate on a variety of controversial social issues and uncertainty regarding the state's finances amid the ongoing coronavirus epidemic.
Legislative Hall remains closed to the public, meaning lawmakers will gather virtually Tuesday to take their oaths of office, adopt rules and formally elect the House Speaker and Senate President. Committee meetings and floor sessions will continue to be conducted virtually and live-streamed through at least the end of the month.
Voters solidified Democratic control of both the House and Senate in November, flipping two Republican-held Senate seats while replacing several incumbent Democrats in both chambers with more left-leaning progressive newcomers.
It remains to be seen how well those newcomers can establish working relationships with veteran lawmakers as they press for action on issues such as marijuana legalization, more gun control, paid family leave, prison reform and a $15 minimum wage.
Newark's Sen. David Sokola, the incoming Senate president, described the new members of his chamber as both "very enthusiastic" and "very ambitious."
"I'm hopeful we can make a good faith effort to let them have their voices heard ... ," said Sokola, who is more progressive leaning then his predecessor, David McBride. "We're going to have a good, healthy debate on these issues, and I think we're still going to be able to leave the room united as a caucus."
Meanwhile, money issues will remain front and center in the General Assembly.
"The big responsibility always for the governor is the budget," Democratic Gov. John Carney said.
Carney noted, however, the fiscal impact of COVID-19 has not been as bad in Delaware as in many states.
"We've been lucky on the budget side that we haven't been hammered like other states," he said, noting that Delaware has no sales tax, and that, while unemployment claims spiked early in the pandemic, a lot of Delawareans remain employed.
As a backup, officials agreed last year to draw down, if necessary, half of the $126 million that had been set aside in a new "budget stabilization" reserve fund proposed by Carney to help the state get through tough economic times without drawing on its $252 million "rainy day fund," which has never been tapped.
Meanwhile, Delaware has been able to rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds to help affected businesses and individuals. As of now, officials don't see the need for any appropriation of state general fund dollars for COVID-19 relief or response.
According to current estimates, revenues for this year are expected to be 8.3 percent higher than last year, but Finance Secretary Rick Geisenberger noted that is attributable to tax payments being deferred from last fiscal year because of the coronavirus.
Geisenberger noted revenue is expected to decline 2.7 percent in fiscal 2022, which starts July 1, and that the aggregate revenue estimates for last year, this year and the upcoming fiscal year are more than $330 million lower than they were a year ago.
As a result, lawmakers are expected to address spending issues with caution.
"The uncertainty, especially around revenues and the pandemic, make it really hard to predict much of anything," Sokola said Monday.
Carney, however, said he remains committed to fulfilling his obligations under a settlement in a school funding lawsuit brought by the ACLU and Community Legal Aid Society. The settlement requires him to seek significantly higher funding from the legislature for disadvantaged students, defined as children from low-income families, those with disabilities and children whose first language is not English.
Among other things, Carney must propose budgets for next year and the following year that include at least $35 million for disadvantaged students. He is required to seek appropriations of at least $50 million for the 2023-2024 school year and $60 million for the 2024-2025 school year. He also is required to propose legislation to make funding for disadvantaged students a permanent fixture in the state budget.
"We will we able to meet our commitment," he said.
Sokola said in a press release last month that starting the session in a virtual format would not stop lawmakers from "aggressively tackling" economic, public health and racial justice issues.
"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," he said in the release.
In response, GOP minority leaders in the House and Senate issued their own release urging Democrats not to consider any controversial legislation while Legislative Hall is closed to the public and people cannot interact with elected officials in person.