Budget requests close to wrapping up this week

DOVER — Winter Joint Finance Committee hearings are almost over.

Only the Department of Health and Social Services remains to present budget requests.

DHSS will spell out its budget needs, spread across three days because the agency claims so many responsibilities.

The governor’s recommended budget allocates $1.19 billion to the department, 29 percent of all General Fund spending. It includes 3,063 positions covered by the General Fund, the most of any department save for the Department of Education, which attributes most of its personnel to educators.

Tuesday will feature administration, the Division for the Visually Impaired, the Division of State Service Centers and the Division of Services for Aging and Adults with Physical Disabilities.

Wednesday, which includes both the Division of Public Health and the Division of Medicaid & Medical Assistance, is likely to be the busiest day. The latter unit is earmarked in the governor’s proposal $754 million for Medicaid, a rapidly rising cost.

Also presenting Wednesday are the Division of Long Term Care Residents Protection and the Division of Social Services.

Thursday, the Division of Developmental Disabilities, the Division of Child Support Services and the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health appear before lawmakers.

Attorney General Matt Denn and Chief Justice Leo Strine were in the Valentine’s Day spirit last week. Appearing before JFC Wednesday, both the Department of Justice and the judiciary brought chocolates for legislators, clearly trying to sweeten them up so the budget-writers would open up the state’s pocketbook a bit more.

When Mr. Denn told lawmakers he had been something special for them, one member’s mind may have been in a different place.

“As long as it’s not a massacre,” quipped Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, who clearly knows his history.

Likely because the state appears to have more money to spend than in any of the past few years, budget presentations generally have been straightforward and noncontroversial. A few agencies, such as the Department of Justice, have asked for more funding to expand programs or add positions, but most are satisfied with Gov. John Carney’s proposal.

This is “maybe the most boring budget that I have ever had to present to you,” Secretary of State Jeff Bullock told lawmakers.

That doesn’t mean every moment has been joyful.

Both Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, and Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Laurel, had some not-so-cheerful comments for the Department of Labor. Sen. Richardson complained about the volume of paperwork his wife had to fill out for their business, while Rep. Ramone said he feels the agency unfairly favors workers over companies.

Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, asked a few agencies about the cost in man-hours of making their presentations, although Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, then noted JFC requests information in the presentation format.

The overview for every agency is typically given by its chief, be it the secretary, chief justice or university president, with other top officials attending as well.

Sen. Lawson also questioned Secretary of Education Susan Bunting over the number of immigrants living in the country illegally and being educated by the state. Delaware does not track such things, Dr. Bunting replied.

When the Department of Safety and Homeland Security appeared before JFC last week, lawmakers almost seemed to trip over themselves to hand over extra money.

Several JFC members agreed creating a full-time Special Operations Response Team for Delaware State Police would be a net gain. Currently, the agency pulls other officers from their duties or time off when special situations arise, which means it then has to pay overtime costs.

SORT responds to 111 incidents a year, according to Secretary Robert Coupe.

The agency averages about $225,000 on overtime for the team. Creating a full-time unit would cost $1.2 million this year, with costs of slightly less than $1 million per year going forward.

“There’s a lot of special missions out there the state police need to do,” Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna, said in advocating for a full-time team.

Political candidates continue to trickle in: There are now primaries for both auditor and the 17th Senatorial District. Democrats Dennis E. Williams and Kathy McGuiness are running for auditor, and Republicans Donyale Hall and Justin King are gunning for the state Senate. Both seats are open.

Eleven incumbent lawmakers have filed, not counting Reps. Trey Paradee and Dave Wilson, who are both running for Senate. Three senators and one representative have announced their retirement thus far, and at least one more is expected.

Ten Senate seats and all 41 House seats are up in November.

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