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Posted on 05-28-2022

Delaware lawmaker scrutinizing lack of movement on minority-backed bills

Posted Sunday, April 24, 2022 5:00 am

Bryan Shupe

By Joseph Edelen

DOVER — Possible changes could be coming to Delaware’s legislative process following a Republican lawmaker’s claim that the majority of minority-sponsored bills are being held back.

The concern regarding the possibility of politics overriding House of Representative rules was brought to attention by Rep. Bryan Shupe of Milford, who raised questions after a number of bills assigned to the House floor and the House Administration Committee hit snags.

Rep. Shupe said that, since the time he was elected in 2018, he has been hearing his colleagues in the minority party say their bills were not being addressed.

After years of these claims without any proof, he decided to research whether they were substantiated.

In his data search, Rep. Shupe consulted House staff, who subsequently considered how many bills had been assigned to the House Administration Committee, how many had been heard by committee members and how many had advanced to a full hearing in the House over the past two years. Staffers then broke those numbers down and sorted the bills by sponsor and party to see how often legislation was being discussed by each side of the aisle.

In a March email to the Delaware State News, Rep. Shupe shared the findings.

During the 150th General Assembly, 86% of bills submitted by the majority party were heard by the committee. For the minority party, 38% of submitted bills were heard, he reported.

In the current 151st General Assembly, 78% of the bills introduced by the majority party and 42% submitted by the minority have been addressed.

As an example, Rep. Shupe cited House Bill 69, which would establish a two-year residential drinking water-purification pilot program through the Department of Health and Social Services, with funding via the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. He said it has yet to receive a hearing on the House floor, despite its placement on the ready list in March 2021.

Additionally, legislation such as HB 108, which would restore the $500 senior real property tax credit, and Senate Bill 233, which would remove the requirement for certain residents to register with their municipality before voting in its elections, were identified as bills waiting to receive a hearing in the Administration Committee. SB 233 was assigned to the committee March 3, 2022, and HB 108 was designated Feb. 19, 2021.

“I want to stress that this isn’t to say, ‘I want more Republican voices in committee,’ or ‘I want more Republican voices heard on the floor,’ but it’s really to show that the committee process is for more ideas to be presented to the General Assembly,” Rep. Shupe said.

“I think the most important part of this is having the public’s support behind good policy over politics.”

While Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, and House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, did not respond to a request for comment about the issue, House deputy chief of staff for communications Drew Volturo explained the committee procedures, which allow lawmakers to present ideas and legislation that best represent their individual districts.

In the House, the task begins with Rep. Schwartzkopf, who is responsible for assigning bills to their required committee, Mr. Volturo said.

“Generally, the title that a bill modifies (will determine) to which committee a bill is assigned. For example, if the bill modifies Title 14–Education, then the bill typically would be assigned to the Education Committee,” he said.

Once bills are assigned, the committee chair is responsible for formulating meeting agendas consisting of legislation that is ready for a hearing. Sponsors need to request that their bill be brought up in committee. But, according to Mr. Volturo, that process is rather informal.

“Bills are scheduled for a committee meeting after the sponsor has requested that a bill be given a hearing. There is no set formal process to request a hearing. Some members will ask a chair in person in Legislative Hall, but typically, the best way is to send a message to the chair asking that their bill be heard,” he said.

Once a sponsor asks for their bill to be addressed in committee, House rules say that must occur within 12 legislative days from the request. On the other hand, House Rule 25 states that, if a member does not request that their proposal receive a committee hearing, the 12-day rule does not apply. These rules also allow a sponsor to attempt to petition their bill out of committee if it has been requested for a hearing and hasn’t received one.

When bills are eventually voted on in committee, if passed, they are placed on the ready list for the full chamber. From there, Rep. Schwartzkopf, Rep. Longhurst and House Majority Whip Larry Mitchell, D-Elsmere, are responsible for setting the agenda for meetings of the entire House.

If a bill is introduced, passed in its respective House committee and passed in the full House chamber, it is then sent to the Senate for the same process. And vice versa for legislation introduced in Senate committees.

If successfully passed in both chambers, a bill is sent to Gov. John Carney for his consideration.

Though Rep. Shupe appointed House staff to conduct research about the status of bills in House committees, a similar inquiry was not done in the Senate. But despite there being no specific research, he said he has witnessed Senate committees take the time to hear the ideas of their colleagues, even when the chamber has a supermajority on legislation.

An example of this came last month when SB 227, the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, was heard in the Senate Health & Social Services Committee. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Seaford, would have required student-athletes to play on a team dictated by their gender identified at birth. The legislation was ultimately defeated in the committee, after passionate testimony given by its chair, Sen. Sarah McBride, D-Wilmington, the first transgender state senator in the U.S.

Rep. Shupe applauded Sen. McBride and her Democratic colleagues for using SB 227 as an opportunity to voice their opinions, stating that the committee process should be an opportunity to present views regardless of party.

“Good ideas don’t always come when we think they’re the best at the time, or they don’t always come when we’re expecting … them,” Rep. Shupe said. “That’s what the committee process is set up to do. It’s meant to hear those ideas and develop them. It’s a place where all 41 of us can come to discuss and have dialogue to develop good policies to help Delaware families.”

On the first legislative day of each year, representatives vote on House rules, and in an effort to speed up the processes in committees, Rep. Shupe said he is already drafting language for next year’s regulations. This includes a proposal that, should a bill not be heard within the required 12-day window, the legislation would automatically be moved to the House floor. He said this would send a message to both representatives and the public that the main goal of a lawmaking session is to hear ideas that better the Delaware community.

House Minority Leader Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, responded to Rep. Shupe’s concerns in a statement to the Delaware State News, saying that the raw numbers can be misleading. He added that some bills held in committee past their hearing deadlines were kept there because the sponsor had not requested a move forward.

Despite this, Rep. Short said he and minority leadership are pushing for change.

“Too many of our members have bills pending committee action that did not get the timely attention they deserved,” Rep. Short said. “The ultimate fate of every bill should be based on the consideration of its merits rather than the political party of its sponsor. State House Republican Whip Tim Dukes, R-Laurel, and I recently met with House Democratic leaders to discuss these issues. To their credit, they gave us assurances these backlogs will be addressed in the coming weeks.”

The House and the Senate are in recess until May 3, when both chambers will reconvene at 2 p.m.

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Contact information for the House Administration Committee members can be found at https://legis.delaware.gov/CommitteeDetail?committeeId=536.