Committee approves capital bond bill totaling $708 million, down 18% from this year

DOVER — Lawmakers completed drafting the capital bond bill Thursday, setting it up to be voted on by the full General Assembly next week. The committee approved a $708 million spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

That total represents a decline of about $155 million (18%) from the current fiscal year and $185 million (21%) from the governor’s January proposal, a precipitous decrease that can be clearly backed to the COVID-19 outbreak.

With coronavirus triggering a big economic hit and preventing the legislature from meeting at all for months, lawmakers were pressed to approve spending plans for the operating and capital budgets by their deadline at the end of this month.

The Joint Committee on Capital Improvement, one of two money committees that handles the annual spending bills, did the latter Thursday by passing a modified bill that closes the gap with cuts to various areas. The cuts themselves were identified beforehand by budget officials in consultation with the committee co-chairs and some others.

The bond bill, which still must be passed by both chambers by July 1, includes $364 million for transportation-related items and $344 million for other needs, such as state facilities.

The $893 million sum proposed by the governor would have been the largest bond bill in state history, surpassing the $863 million total allocated in the current fiscal year.

Legislators cut proposed new funding for Kent and Sussex Family Court facilities, higher education initiatives that could create or keep jobs, school safety and more. They did not remove money for school construction and agreed to still provide $10 million apiece for maintenance and other campus improvements to the University of Delaware, Delaware State University and Delaware Technical Community College.

The spending plan preserves some money for the fund used to incentivize companies to settle or stay in Delaware, as well as for Wilmington’s Riverfront Development Corporation. Clean water and changes to the Wilmington school system are also still funded but at a lower level.

The bond bill will contain about $35 million in cash, although the Joint Finance Committee could opt to use a portion of that funding to provide pay raises to some state employees when it meets Monday.

“Up until yesterday we thought we had no money,” Rep. Debra Heffernan, a Bellefonte Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said in reference to a $90 million bump in revenue projections the day before.

Lawmakers met in the House chamber as opposed to the usual committee room, which does not allow for social distancing. Audio for the hearing was broadcast online through the legislature’s website, although there were several technical major difficulties with playback that caused delays totaling more than an hour.

It’s unclear why the committee did not broadcast its meeting through YouTube as it did last week and the full chamber has been.

Only the 12 members and some key staff and budget officials were allowed in Legislative Hall, which has been closed for three months.

The Joint Finance Committee will convene Monday, and the full chambers will likely start voting on the spending plans in the following days. The bills must be approved for the start of the new fiscal year, which is July 1.