Revamping Our State Legislature (Part I)

Centuries ago, Thomas Paine, a great visionary, realized that “common sense” prevailed in a world of uncertainty.  This column is dedicated to him and others who believe that practical reasoning and sound principles of governance can truly make a difference in our society.

While a significant amount of media coverage will descend upon the national conventions in Denver (Democrats) and Minneapolis (Republicans) over the next few weeks, the lights in Legislative Hall in Dover are relatively dim and the parking spaces remain vacant. As many Delawareans are facing rising oil and gas prices and a sluggish economy, it is rather odd that our lawmakers are in recess after a mere six months of work. In the shadow of some of our nation’s economic powerhouse states—Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York—an inexplicable mindset has set in among many of our lawmakers. To the detriment of the people of this great state, our elected officials still believe that the business of the people can be accomplished by a part-time governing body. This article is the first of a three-part series that will focus on substantive solutions aimed at revamping our three branches of state government to allow our state to become competitive in the 21st century global economy.  

For the state of Delaware to define itself in the national and international marketplace, we can no longer accept a part-time legislature. The important agenda and needs of Delawareans require that our lawmakers govern on a year-round basis to ensure that policies and laws are enacted to further the interests of those governed. Our state constitution (specifically, Article 2, Section 4), seemingly requires that the General Assembly remain in session each year from January until the last day of June. When adopted in1897, this legislative timetable was consistent with other state constitutions of the era—as it was important for lawmakers to recess the legislature in June to tend to family and business duties in the summer and fall (such as managing farms and preparing for the upcoming manufacturing cycle).  However, the governing and living environment of 2008 in Delaware and throughout the nation has changed significantly in the past 111 years.

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While times have changed, our lawmakers still hold on to this archaic vestige of governance. They cite their need to tend to other important duties in their personal lives during the six-month legislative recess and the lack of desire to amend our state constitution to extend the legislative session. While the former excuse is just unacceptable and an affront to the modern requirements of governing, the second excuse (amending our state constitution) might seem to have some merit. Amending our state constitution requires tremendous effort and is certainly time-consuming, as it requires approval by two consecutive legislative sessions. However, these lawmakers fail to recall that the authors of our state constitution, in their infinite wisdom, contemplated the possibility that a part-time legislature may be detrimental to the public at a future point in time and imbedded a creative, yet simple solution in our state constitution. The very same sentence that appears to require that the legislature shut down on June 30 includes a phrase that permits the legislature to continue its work—either by the governor calling a special session or, more importantly, by the mutual desire of the presiding officers of both the House and Senate. A simple agreement between the leaders of both houses of the legislature could permit our lawmakers to continue fulfilling the mandate of the people as long as in their judgment, the public interest requires such extension. Does this seem like an insurmountable feat? Five minutes (10 minutes if someone disagrees) of legislative action in both houses of the General Assembly could provide our state with a necessary tool to become competitive in today’s global economy.

Imagine a General Assembly not confined by artificial time constraints, able to dispense with the administrative matters of government during the first six months of the session and then allocating the remainder of the year toward strategic planning in the areas of education, agriculture, law, finance, chemicals, banking and justice. Our General Assembly could serve as an innovative place of ideas of governance, while responding in a rapid manner, to changes in our state’s economic environment. In short, the people’s agenda is not a part-time agenda.      

Next, with a few limited exceptions, the time has come for our lawmakers to eliminate the concept of “closed-door” non-public sessions when governing at Legislative Hall. While the debate around secret meetings is not unique to the state of Delaware (i.e., you may recall Vice-President Dick Cheney’s debacle regarding his private meetings with energy executives in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House), it seems out of place in a state where the public desire for free-thinking, openness and government accountability is prevalent.  

Recognizing that private meetings are important in the decision-making process for lawmakers, as individuals should be able to exchange ideas freely in an environment without repercussion, such meetings should be limited to party caucuses (held outside working hours and at a venue away from Legislative Hall). Quite simply, private meetings by lawmakers involving public issues should be avoided, but if desired by individual lawmakers, such meetings at a minimal should be held in non-public facilities with extremely limited discussions of public issues in order to avoid the perception (or misperception) of public corruption or misconduct (of course, the lawmaker should pay the meal, if any). Legislative Hall, like all public buildings built using the funds of the public treasury, belong to the people of the State of Delaware. Unless such meetings are deemed private in order to further the public interest (i.e., discussions surrounding state security, emergency preparedness, and other areas where the release of classified information could be detrimental to the public interest), ideas, thoughts, debates and positions emerging from the corridors of Legislative Hall should remain open to the public.  

Finally, our lawmakers should require a public release of the proposed state budget at least one month before the vote on its passage. This idea would seem non-controversial, as all notions of good government assume that lawmakers, the public and the media have ample time to analyze and review proposed policies. However, with respect to delivering the single most important bill that impacts the livelihood of all Delawareans, no such time requirement exists and too often, our lawmakers are voting on our proposed state budget hours after its introduction (since it’s a rather lengthy document, I find it very difficult to believe that such dense and lengthy information can be consumed in under a week, not to mention a few hours). By simply requiring an early delivery of this important document, Delawareans will have ample time to review and analyze how our money is being spent and can scrutinize or encourage the allocation of our public funds accordingly.  

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In closing, as the people of this great state review these proposed ideas of revamping our state legislature, I remind our esteemed lawmakers that answering the call of public service requires more than half of your time and dedication. We must ensure that the General Assembly is capable of enacting laws for the betterment of our state and mankind in general. The time has come to govern.

After all, common sense must prevail.


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