Delaware panel OKs $816M bond bill, highest in 13 years

DOVER — The Joint Committee on Capital Improvement allocated another $91.4 million to the bond bill Thursday, growing the total of the capital spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year to $816.3 million, the highest in 13 years.

The bond bill, which allocates money for roads, bridges, school construction, building maintenance and related projects, is now all but finished, although it won’t be voted on until next week. The total marks a staggering 38.4 percent increase over the current year, the result of an influx of new revenue and decision-makers’ desire to using that funding for one-time needs rather than growing the operating budget.

“Yes, this is a bond bill that is bigger than we’ve had in recent years, but it’s nowhere close to what we need,” committee co-chair Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown, told members Wednesday.

Rep. Quinn Johnson

The sum of $816.3 million includes $165.6 million for school construction and renovation, $60.1 million for projects designated as having an economic development hook, $94.2 million for minor maintenance on state-owned facilities and $368.4 million for roads and bridges.

About half of the non-transportation funding comes from bonding authority, with another $88.6 million in cash transferred from the operating budget on top of the $100.4 million the governor recommended. Collectively, that’s the most cash going to the bond bill in “the last decade or so,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Jackson told reporters.

Gov. John Carney in January proposed a bond bill totaling $677.5 million.

Among the additions made by the committee at the request of legislators is $9.1 million that can be used to improve school safety, $11.4 million for initiatives undertaken by the state’s higher education institutions that will create jobs, $4 million for a hodgepodge of “community organizations with capital infrastructure projects that will provide a benefit to the state” and an extra $9.7 million for work on subdivision roads.

The committee spent substantial time Thursday discussing a proposal from the Department of Transportation to create a $5 million pilot program to supplement the Community Transportation Fund, which provides money to lawmakers for renovations and additions to roadways not maintained by DelDOT.

Allocated on an annual basis, that funding can be used for a variety of transportation-related initiatives, such as repaving roads, adding traffic signals or building sidewalks. It is typically spent in each individual legislator’s district in response to constituent requests, giving senators and representatives opportunities to engender good will with the people who elected them.

However, while every lawmaker gets the same amount — $275,000, with the exception of the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement co-chairs, who each receive $590,000 — not all districts are created equal. Some have more subdivision mileage, while a few districts fall largely in municipal limits and therefore see their roadways covered by the Municipal Street Aid program. As a result, a number of districts have needs that eclipse available CTF dollars.

“Based off the cost of what it takes to pay a mile, there are districts that cannot and never will be able to stay in the level of repair that they need to,” Rep. Johnson said.

That’s what is driving DelDOT’s new initiative, which the bond bill allocates $5 million for. The agency will use that money to pave and fix roads judged by its criteria to be most in need of repair, without regard to district.

Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, objected to the proposal, arguing there should instead be more money going to legislators, who he said are generally better suited to responding to the needs of their individual districts.

He proposed increasing the CTF allocation of $17.7 million by $8 million, which DelDOT objected to on the grounds it would take money away from other needs.

“I think the idea that somehow that’s a net loss is not right,” Sen. Bonini said. “The idea is it’s allocated differently but still

Sen. Colin Bonini

for transportation-related projects.”

After some back and forth, DelDOT officials moved behind closed doors to discuss where they might be able to find money and emerged with a proposal to shift $4.7 million from the $85 million allocated for general road paving and rehabilitation.

“We think that’s the best we can really do right now without impacting our overall program,” Secretary of Transportation Jennifer Cohan told the committee.

By an 8-4 vote, with the opposition coming from the co-chairs and two other Democrats, the panel approved the additional CTF money. It also voted in favor of the pilot.

The change means every lawmaker will receive $350,000.

Before lawmakers moved on from DelDOT, Ms. Cohan took a minute to urge them to concentrate more on road paving and repair rather than signs and other items that do not fall under CTF’s core purpose.

“We’re begging you guys to get Rule 12 under control,” she said, referencing the guideline that governs what CTF dollars can be spent on.

Other additions to the bond bill include another $3.5 million apiece for the University of Delaware, Delaware State University and Delaware Technical Community College, upping the amount they will receive in the fiscal year starting July 1 to $10 million. The committee also created a new fund to distribute $10 million to UD, DSU and DelTech for projects that will create jobs.

Money will be awarded by a group composed of the secretary of state, budget director, controller general and committee co-chairs.

The University of Delaware last month requested $60 million to develop a biopharmaceutical facility President Dennis Assanis described as a “game-changer.”

DSU had asked for an additional $93.5 million for various campus renovations.

As part of the investment in higher education, Wesley College will receive $1.4 million to renovate the former Dover Public Library building, which Dover sold to the college for $1 in August. That funding was added to the bond bill after an appeal from Sen. Bonini.

For the first time since 2012, the bond bill includes the full $10 million in farmland preservation funding, often a point of contention for Republicans.

Under the measure, 17 organizations, such as senior centers, historical institutes and community centers, would get amounts ranging from $15,000 to $1.3 million for infrastructure needs. While those entities are grouped together as part of the “Community Reinvestment Fund,” the intent of the committee co-chairs and the administration is for the allocation to take place only in the next fiscal year rather than establishing a new fund filled annually.

The bill sets aside $10 million to purchase new voting machines, expected to be bought soon and put into place in time for the 2020 election.

Also included is $5 million for a school safety fund that would be created through legislation expected to be passed by the General Assembly in the coming days. While the total falls well short of the $65 million some lawmakers hoped for, $15 million allocated to the Department of Education for maintenance and equipment could be used to bolster school security.

Removed from Gov. Carney’s initial proposal were allocations of $1.8 million for an expansion and renovation of the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution’s infirmary and $945,000 for HVAC fixes for Delaware State Police’s Troop 9 in Odessa.

About $15 million in uncommitted revenue remains, with officials holding that aside in case legislation that would lower the tax rates on the state’s casinos passes.

Should that bill fail or pass in a form that has a smaller fiscal impact, lawmakers could give the extra money to nonprofits through grant-in-aid or hold it over to next year.

The bond bill, unlike almost every measure that come before the General Assembly, requires a three-fourth supermajority to pass.

Lawmakers have four regularly scheduled days remaining in the legislative session.

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

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