Delaware lawmakers free up cash for bond bill

DOVER — After some nifty accounting maneuvers, lawmakers have $29.5 million in General Fund dollars to allocate to the bond bill.

By reducing funding for the open-land program to $0, taking $6 million from the Wilmington school redistricting and shifting money from various special accounts throughout state government, the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement freed up cash for construction projects Wednesday.

The current proposal for maintenance, building renovations and economic development initiatives totals $202.2 million, slightly less than the $204.7 million Gov. Jack Markell proposed in January.

Throughout Wednesday’s hourslong committee meeting, members emphasized the challenges that continue to face them as the Legislature enters the last day of both the legislative session and fiscal year.

Rep. S. Quinton Johnson

Rep. S. Quinton Johnson

Co-chair Rep. S. Quinton Johnson, D-Middletown, said lawmakers are in “unprecedented times” with myriad budget hurdles.

“As you go through this list you will see it is not a pretty picture at all,” he said of the project list drawn up by the committee.

By shifting funding from sources like the Corporate Technology Fund and Homeland Security Helicopter, the committee gave itself some more money to work with, although the solution also leaves legislators with fewer options in 2017.

“It won’t be a tool in the toolbox to solve if there’s a problem next year,” Office of Management and Budget Director Brian Maxwell.

The committee fell about $1.8 million short of Gov. Markell’s recommended total of $31.3 million in cash going to the bond bill.

A push to remove some of the $10 million planned for the fund used to entice companies to settle in Delaware, against the wishes of the administration, saw some debate, although the vote to do so ultimately failed.

Rep. Michael Mulrooney, D-Wilmington Manor, called financial incentives “political blackmail,” arguing Delaware has no choice but to pay up in the face of competition from neighboring states.

“We could use $10 million to fix our schools, our roads, fix our water infrastructure,” he said. “We’re giving JPMorgan, one of the biggest companies in the world, millions.”

Rep. John “Larry” Mitchell, D-Elsmere, advocated against removing $1.7 million in capital funding from the governor’s recommended budget for Delaware Technical Community College. He is the head of public safety at the college.

“Delaware Tech, unlike the other higher (education) institutes, is a state agency,” he said. “I think we have a responsibility to maintain those facilities just like we do with the other 19 school districts. We take the time and effort to make sure the children in the lower schools are coming to places where they’re in great condition, and I think Delaware Tech going forward needs to be looked at in the same light.”

Several other legislators agreed, with Rep. Johnson noted state-operated buildings in all three counties are facing serious needs and struggling to find funding.

“Despite the fact we had of course a very difficult budget year with revenues, there were still a significant number of new proposals that were put out that will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the future despite our bleak outlook, and we have to take care of our house. … We have significant issues with maintenance, not just through the higher institutions but … all of this, that we’ve got to make a commitment, not just next year,” he said.

The committee also voted to remove prevailing wage requirements for projects funded from certain state sources, a move that would save some money. Rep. Mulrooney and Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington, were opposed.

A few committee members questioned bond-drafting process Wednesday, amidst comments from several lawmakers the General Assembly has failed to properly plan for the future and is left scrambling every time revenues dip

“I think we sometimes get caught up in, ‘Hey, that’s the number we started with, let’s work toward that number,’” Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, said of Gov. Markell’s recommended funding total.

Citing what he called a large amount of deferred maintenance throughout the state, Sen. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, took a similar stance.

“We need to start tightening our belt until we get capital expenditures tightened up,” he advised colleagues.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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