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General assembly wrap-up: Social issues a focal point for Delaware legislature

Delaware’s General Assembly addressed a host of social issues during this year’s legislative session, which ended early Monday. Here is a look at some of the issues lawmakers considered.

MONEY MATTERS

Lawmakers passed a $4.45 billion operating budget for fiscal 2020, a 4.2 percent increase in spending that includes another pay raise for state government workers, who also received pay raises last year. A separate supplemental appropriations bill earmarked $62 million in one-time spending for various programs and projects.

Lawmakers also approved an $863 million capital budget for construction and transportation projects, the largest infrastructure package in Delaware history. Their final spending bill was a record $55 million in grants for nonprofit groups, community organizations and volunteer fire companies.

Despite the spending increases, increasing revenue projections allowed lawmakers to set aside about $125 million in a new reserve fund that could be tapped to cover state expenses during an economic downturn.

GUN CONTROL

After failed attempts last year, Senate Democrats in Delaware doubled down this year by reintroducing bills to ban certain semiautomatic firearms deemed “assault weapons” by gun foes, along with large-capacity magazines.

Democrats even went so far as to propose requiring any Delawarean wanting to buy a firearm to first obtain permission from the government in the form of a state-issued “purchaser card,” which would require being fingerprinted.

After holding a hearing at which critics blasted the proposals as unconstitutional restrictions on gun ownership, the Democratic Senate president announced that support for the measures was “almost nonexistent,” and that they would not be coming out of a committee he leads.

The move came amid criticism of the gun bills by representatives of organized labor, a key constituency and source of votes for Democratic lawmakers.

Lawmakers spent considerable time this year discussing several revisions to Delaware’s medical marijuana law and a proposal to legalize pot for recreational use.

The legalization bill failed to get a floor vote, but lawmakers did pass a bill adding “new daily persistent headache” and chronic debilitating migraines to the list of conditions for which medical marijuana can be prescribed.

They also passed legislation authorizing “compassionate use” of medical marijuana by a person who has a severe and debilitating condition that is not among the conditions for which medical marijuana is normally allowed.

Lawmakers also approved legislation expanding Delaware’s decriminalization of simple possession of marijuana to juveniles, not just adults.

A bill introduced late in the session that allows medical marijuana users to grow their own pot failed to get a committee hearing.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Democratic lawmakers introduced 17 criminal justice reform measures supported by Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Jennings. Eleven of the proposals were passed by the General Assembly, including several on the final day of the session.

A proposal to grant judges more discretion in imposing concurrent, rather than consecutive, sentences was signed into law by Gov. John Carney, as was a bill making it easier for adults to expunge arrest and conviction records for certain low-level offenses by petitioning the State Bureau of Identification.

Lawmakers also voted to decriminalize marijuana possession for juveniles and underage consumption of alcohol, while reducing barriers to occupational licenses for criminal offenders seeking to become electricians, plumbers, HVAC technicians and massage therapists. They also approved revisions to Delaware’s drug laws to address what critics believe are racial disparities in sentencing.

Democrats introduced a proposal to increase Delaware’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, even before the second phase of a wage increase that was enacted last year takes effect.

The proposal stalled in committee.

The minimum wage increased 50 cents to $8.75 in January under last year’s law, and will increase another 50 cents to $9.25 per hour Oct. 1.

This year’s bill calls for increasing the minimum wage to $11 on Jan. 1, 2020, followed by a $1 raise at the start of each year until it hits $15 in 2024. Future increases to the minimum wage would then be automatically tied to increases in the consumer price index.

A bill that was introduced on the penultimate day of this year’s session and is expected to be considered next year would increase the minimum wage for tipped employees, which currently is $2.23 per hour. The bill mandates that tipped workers be paid at least 65% of Delaware’s minimum wage. Under the current $8.75 per hour wage, they would be paid at least $5.69. When the minimum wage increases to $9.25 per hour, the tipped wage minimum wage would increase to $6.01 per hour.

On the final day of the legislative session, Democratic Gov. John Carney signed a bill that allows early, in-person voting in Delaware. The new law allows registered voters to cast ballots at polling places up to 10 days before Election Day.

House lawmakers approved the first leg of a constitutional amendment that would eliminate limitations in Delaware’s constitution regarding when a person can vote by absentee ballot. The measure, which would authorize the General Assembly to enact general laws regarding rules for absentee voting, failed to win the required supermajority in the Senate.

A proposal to allow same-day registration in Delaware failed to get a floor vote in either chamber.

Lawmakers approved a bill that largely prohibits retailers in Delaware from providing single-use carryout plastic bags to customers in an effort to reduce litter and the amount of plastic bags cluttering landfills and clogging stormwater systems.

The bill applies to stores with more than 7,000 square feet (650.32 sq. meters) of sales space, and chain stores with three or more locations having at least 3,000 square feet (278.71 sq. meters) of sales space. Restaurants are excluded from the bag ban.

Lawmakers followed up the vote to ban single-use plastic bags by introducing legislation to ban single-use paper bags as well.

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