Delaware legislators make stormy progress on way to bond bill

DOVER — Frustrations between Democrats and Republicans boiled over Friday when members of the Bond Committee met to finalize the state’s capital budget for road and construction projects.

For the first time, according to officials, funding for Municipal Street Aid and the Community Transportation Fund will not be covered by the state.

The former provides funds for some of Delaware’s largest cities and its absence means potholes on neighborhood roads might not be fixed over the next fiscal year. Local municipal road budgets could also be impacted, officials said.

At the same time, legislators argued about Thursday’s failure of the Senate to approve a Democratic-backed bill to hike Division of Motor Vehicles’ fees. The fee hikes, supporters said, would have raised needed revenue for infrastructure projects.

With officials from the Delaware Department of Transportation appearing before the committee to discuss their budget request, legislators shifted off-topic, spending about 45 minutes debating the fee hike bill’s failure and casting blame.

Democrats charged Republicans with being unwilling to play ball, while Republicans accused the majority Democrats of refusing to compromise.

Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown, co-chairman of the bond panel (formally known as the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement), opened the meeting by saying he was disappointed, a statement echoed by co-chairman Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark.

From there, the meeting quickly slipped into partisan griping before the panel shifted to specific items in the capital budget.

Rep. Michael Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, criticized a Democratic proposal to begin moving some of DelDOT’s expenses from the Transportation Trust Fund to the General Fund as too gradual, calling it “disingenuous and almost laughable.”

He acknowledged there will eventually have to be tax increases to help fund infrastructure and the budget, but insisted large-scale trust fund shifts should precede that.

In response to comments that planned cuts and raising fees will hurt Delawareans, Rep. Quinn said businesses have to increase costs at times so the state government must do so as well to continue serving people.

Rep. Charles Potter Jr., D-Wilmington, said lawmakers have to be willing to make tough decisions.

But Republicans returned the verbal fire.

“For the first time in 20 years, one party has to actually include the other party,” said Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, in a barb at the Democrats who no longer hold a super majority — a statement not quite accurate as Republicans controlled the House until 2008.

Last year, Democrats failed to pass any sort of infrastructure plan when they held the necessary two-thirds super majority in both chambers to push a bill through without Republican support.

As debate continued, an apparently frustrated Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, D-Newark, questioned what the committee was doing.

“Are we going to get anything done?” she asked, as several DelDOT officials applauded.

Partisan politics colored much of the remainder of the session, which lasted seven hours and was a continuation of more than three hours of discussion from Thursday.

After turning to DelDOT’s infrastructure allocation, lawmakers were quick to approve the funding, which totals $311 million, although only $127 million of that comes from the state.

The loss of funding for Municipal Street Aid and the Community Transportation Fund brought criticism from local offiicials.

“It’s going to have a great impact on conditions of the streets that we’ve laid out for fiscal year 2016 and our budget,” Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen, present for the vote, said afterward. “We’re going to have to do a scramble to see if we keep those projects within the budget. We’ll have to go back and revisit our budget. We’ll probably go through another two weeks.”

The Community Transportation Fund was used by lawmakers to provide funding for streets in their districts. Municipal Street Aid totaled $5 million last year, while the Community Transportation Fund was $16.75 million.

Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, said of the $270,000 each lawmaker was allocated in fiscal year 2015 that only about $30,000 remains in his account.

The loss of both funds will have a serious impact on Dover, he said.

“This is not a good week for any municipality in the state of Delaware,” he said, noting he supported raising some taxes or fees to bring in additional revenue to government.

All four Republicans on the committee voted against the allocation.

Rep. Johnson noted last week the funds could be eliminated due to the tight budget officials repeatedly have cited.
DelDOT’s allocation was not the only drama Friday. Republicans have threatened to hold up the bond bill if language allowing the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to raise fees without General Assembly approval is included.

Language contained in the 2015 bond bill let the department vote to raise fees for parks and hunting licenses.

Planned hunting and trapping fee increases were rejected, thanks in part to public outcry.

Sen. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, insisted the committee alter the epilogue to prevent DNREC from unilaterally increasing fees for any of its sub-units but the Division of Parks and Recreation.

After discussion, the committee approved the language giving DNREC greater authority, although two Republicans dissented.

Republicans also took issue with the bond committee providing no funding for the Agriculture Lands Preservation Program and the Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund, something the Joint Finance Committee mentioned as a possibility Wednesday.

“Every year we come down here and decide we want the money for something else,” said Sen. Bonini.

Less money has been allocated for the funds than recommended in some years, although budget officials said this is the first time either has been zeroed out under Gov. Jack Markell, who took office in 2009. A total of $3 million was recommended for each in January by the governor.

The decision means the programs will not have funding from this new budget to purchase agricultural easements and preservation districts.

Rep. Ramone protested cuts to higher education from what some committee members had requested, leading to some debate between lawmakers of different parties.

The University of Delaware, Delaware State University and Delaware Technical Community College each will receive $6 million, down from the recommended $7 million but actually greater than the $4.3 million provided in the current year.

The overall capital budget is down about $11.6 million from Gov. Markell’s recommendations and $46.7 million from fiscal year 2015 as a result of slipping revenues. It includes $15 million from one-time money, as well as about $17.8 million made available through several failed school referenda.

Legislators will vote on both the the general allocation and the capital budget Tuesday, the last legislative day until January. The bond bill requires three-fifths approval of the legislature to pass, and with Democrats falling short of the super majority in the Senate, Republicans have some leverage..

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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