Cautious budget markup starts for state’s lawmakers

DOVER — The good news for the lawmakers responsible for crafting the annual state budget is they aren’t expected to have to make large cuts or find money to balance the budget. The bad news is the extra money they do have is being pulled in several different ways — and could be gone in a year.

On the first day of budget markup, the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement issued a cautionary note similar to advice Gov. John Carney has previously urged legislators to follow.

“We’re going to be saying no quite a bit,” committee co-chair Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown, told members.

The state has seen its revenue projections rise by $100 million since the governor’s January recommended budget, largely due to a federal tax cut and fewer people claiming abandoned property.

The Joint Finance Committee convenes May 22 to begin working on the operating budget, and it’s sure to hear plenty of requests for money over the two weeks it meets. Many people, including top lawmakers, want to restore an $8.7 million reduction in nonprofit funding through grant-in-aid, while pending bills would add costs for things like paid parental leave, financial assistance to casinos and basic special education funding.

About two-thirds of that $100 million is one-time money, however, meaning it cannot be built into the budget without driving up costs in future years. Spending $50 million in one-time funds on new programs and services may sound good to some, but that would leave legislators with a gap to make up the following year.

Gov. John Carney knows where he wants that money to go.

“When I say one-time, I’m essentially talking about the bond bill,” he said last week. “Cash to the bond bill, right? Farmland preservation, open space preservation, wastewater infrastructure, unfunded capital liabilities, more money to the higher ed for their facilities.”

His capital proposal includes $20 million for keeping land free from development, $6 million for drinking water projects, $4.2 million for beach preservation, $6.85 million to design a new Family Court building, $150.6 million for school construction and $25.8 million for minor capital improvements statewide.

That’s a positive sign for government facilities, which have been neglected for years, according to officials.

On the flip side, that $100 million only scratches the surface of what is needed. Deferred maintenance on state buildings exceeds $200 million, investment into the state’s waterways is required to keep them clean, costs are racking up for higher education institutes like Delaware Technical Community College and the Family Court buildings in Kent and Sussex counties are out-of-date and cramped.

“People heard we have money. They didn’t hear that we underfunded DelTech by over $100 million last year for their current needs in infrastructure,” co-chair Sen. Dave Sokola, D-Newark, said.

The governor’s recommended bond bill earmarks $6.5 million apiece to DelTech, the University of Delaware and Delaware State University. According to Sen. Sokola, however, UD is prepared to ask for more Wednesday — $60 million more.

Noting the institution is considered a public body in some ways but a private one in others — it receives state funding but is exempt from nearly all Freedom of Information Act laws — Sen. Sokola urged legislators not to support the University of Delaware’s ask “until they decide if they’re public or not.”

Plenty of people may be left disappointed. Grant-in-aid recipients could be among them.

Gov. Carney has spoken for more careful consideration of what nonprofits receive money, and Rep. Johnson noted increasing grant-in-aid funding would just create a need the next year if that additional spending doesn’t come from a sustainable revenue source.

“I think they should be careful about what they restore,” Gov. Carney said of the Joint Finance Committee. “I’ve always argued they should be a little bit harder-nosed about grant-in-aid and who gets what when they evaluate them.”

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