Cuts in proposed state spending put budget closer to finish

 

DOVER — Lawmakers continued crafting next year’s budget Wednesday, beginning to make the first substantial cuts by eliminating from the governor’s proposed funding for police body cameras, pay raises for some contractors and a laundry list of education programs and grants.

Many programs pitched by Gov. Jack Markell for the fiscal year beginning July 1 were soundly rejected, with the price tags posing a challenge in the wake of a May revenue decrease.

Legislators have yet to discuss the proposed 1 percent pay raise for state employees.

The Joint Finance Committee slashed funding for a host of education-related initiatives Wednesday, including zeroing out the fund used to issue money to high-performing or new charter schools and rejecting a proposed expansion of the scholarship that provides free education at Delaware Technical Community College for in-state students.

Exact figures on how much legislators cut are difficult to come by, but the co-chairs of JFC said afterward they felt they had completed a great deal of work. The 12 members of the committee will finish the budget today.

Once completed today, the budget will be lower than Gov. Markell’s January proposal, but an influx of revenue in June could see it then climb, rendering some of Wednesday’s cuts moot.

After three somewhat uneventful days, lawmakers met for about three-and-a-half hours Wednesday, going through the different state departments and approving spending plans that in many cases differ from what Gov. Markell recommended.

Members of the committee disagreed on a few points, with sometimes-lengthy discussions following.

Some of that conversation came on Delaware State Police patrols in Sussex County, with Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, questioning why the state pays $1.2 million to help support that, noting “this isn’t Santa’s workshop.”

Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson

“I would be interested to know in Sussex County … in lieu of creating their own police department as we’ve done in New Castle County why wouldn’t they pay the whole cost of the additional offices to do that?” she asked.

The state is currently covering that cost through one-time settlement money.

A vote to remove that item from the budget for next year was unsuccessful.

The question of whether to pass a 1 percent raise for outside providers contracted with the Children’s, Correction and Health departments, an idea proposed by the governor, consumed a good deal of time. As legislators debated ways to ensure the funding would go to workers themselves as a pay raise, some committee members questioned whether simply adding the 1 percent itself was a good plan or one that would complicate future bids.

A motion to provide the funding, which totaled $2.2 million, was defeated.

Removing the Charter School Performance fund also saw some debate, but an effort to keep $100,000 in the fund failed.

The committee cut 1 percent of funding for the University of Delaware, Delaware State University and DelTech, totaling about $659,000.

The two heads of JFC, both Democrats, raised the potential of long-term budget and spending reform, with Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, saying “we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can go very deep in the future” without changes.

“There has been imbalance built in the structure of the state that cannot be sustained, and that is that the state of Delaware performs more services at the state level that any other state in the nation by far,” he said.

Delaware covers some things, like prisons and education, that is done more at the county level elsewhere in the country.

Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, pledged JFC would stop making small changes on the “margins” of the budget and would begin more in-depth analyses of priorities and programs.

“If we can get under that thin layer and start to look deep into the budget, I think we can find a lot of things,” Sen. McDowell. “A lot of things that have gotten into the budget maybe got there 30 years ago and they just stay there!”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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