Delaware budget balanced with minor cuts, settlement funds

DOVER — Legislators finalized the state budget Wednesday, making cuts and dipping into one-time settlement money to fund the $3.9 billion spending plan.

Programs such as the Modern Maturity Center, People’s Place and the Delaware Organ and Tissue Program had their budgets snipped by 5 percent as legislators cleared a multi-million deficit for the fiscal year 2016 budget.

Entering Monday, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee was facing a $27.7 million deficit that had to be eliminated by the time the fiscal year ends June 30. By making several mostly minor cuts to state programs and outside organizations that receive government funds, and by dipping into money received by the Attorney General’s Office from mortgage-related settlements, the committee was able to balance the budget.

Members used $15 million from a Standard & Poor’s settlement for cash to the bond bill, which helps fund capital projects. An additional $4.58 million from the settlement went to several state agencies to fund non-public school transportation, charter schools, the upcoming presidential primary and a few other things.

Rep. Melanie Ceorge Smith

Rep. Melanie Ceorge Smith

Grant-in-aid programs, which include organizations like volunteer fire companies and senior centers, will see a 5 percent cut, totaling $2 million, when JFC meets on Tuesday.

At the conclusion of the three-hour meeting Wednesday, legislators reflected on what several called an extremely difficult budget year, the result of declining revenue and rising costs.

“In the long-term and big picture, the people of Delaware can be proud of the fact that on July 1, their police officers are going to still be on the road protecting them from criminals. They can be proud that when their kids go back to school, there are going to be teachers there, teaching them,” said JFC co-chairwoman Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear. “We are not a state that does budget gridlock. We have a budget now, and the government is going to continue to function to serve the people of Delaware.”

The non-public school transportation does reflect a decrease in the current level of funding, meaning applicable families will receive $75 rather than $127.

Several lawmakers said they appreciated the change but wanted the committee to continue providing subsidies to Delawareans in future years, once the one-time money has been used.

“I am not happy with the fact that it has been reduced to what I will consider crumbs,” said Rep. Jose Miro, R-Pike Creek Valley.

Legislators granted Chief Justice Leo Strine the right to raise some court fees with the money going to the Office of Conflicts Counsel and the General Fund.

The Delaware Agriculture Lands Preservation Program and the Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund, both of which Gov. Jack Markell recommended in January to receive $3 million, could end up getting nothing, although the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement could opt to use some of the $15 million shifted to it to fund those programs. The committee will meet today.

Lawmakers also are holding $5 million from the S&P settlement that can be used if the General Assembly reaches an agreement to move some of the Department of Transportation’s operating expenses from its infrastructure trust fund to the General Fund.

On top of that, JFC is sitting on $36 million from Bank of America and Citigroup. Gained by Attorney General Matt Denn, that money looks like it will not be used for Mr. Denn’s priorities but could be tapped to balance the budget in a year’s time.

Entering Monday, the state was facing a nearly $170 million shortfall for fiscal year 2017.

“At this point, it is the responsible thing to do from the perspective that if we were to spend it on things that would be ideas that maybe are not an absolute core government function, if we were to spend that money this year, then next year, when we’re looking at, like I said, making big policy changes to core government functions, we’ve essentially traded off spending the money this year on non-core government functions in exchange for next year we’re now going to have to cut core government functions, so we believed that it was the responsible thing to do to put that on hold for the time being,” Rep. Smith said.

Reached for comment afterward, Mr. Denn said in a statement he was still hopeful some of his plans would be funded.

“We recognize the difficult choices the JFC has had to make and recognize that some JFC members still may want to fund some of our plan, especially the Wilmington police foot patrols that will run out of money in mid-July and crime-preventing video cameras that could be funded,” he said.

Co-chairman Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, said after the meeting that state government employees are overdue for a raise, leading to the possibility that money could be utilized to help fund pay increases.

“That, and a lot of other things, are just mounting pressures,” he said.

The General Assembly will vote on the budget bill Tuesday, the last day of session this year..

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