From the Hall: State’s annual budget hearings wrap up, for now

DOVER — The first round of budget hearings for the fiscal year starting July 1 is in the books. The annual February hearings wrapped up Thursday, meaning the initial six-week break in the legislative calendar is nearly finished.

Lawmakers will return March 17 and meet for a month before another break, although this one will only last two weeks.

The 12 members of the Joint Finance Committee spent the month of February hearing from state agency officials and members of the public, helping them get an idea of possible tweaks to Gov. John Carney’s January recommendations. The Joint Committee on Capital Improvement, meanwhile, met this past week.

The proposed operating budget totals $4.63 billion in General Fund dollars — a category consisting of the stereotypical government tax revenues — while the capital budget comes to $893 million. Both would be the largest sums in state history.

Among those presenting to the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement were the University of Delaware, Delaware State University and Delaware Technical Community College. The former received a very different reception than the other two, with legislators grilling UD President Dennis Assanis about the institution’s quasi-public status.

According to the university’s website, the school is “state-assisted yet privately governed,” which UD says has its roots in its charter. That term does not appear in the founding document itself, however, although it does say the state in 1913 granted “to the University of Delaware a perpetual charter which contains no reserve power in the General Assembly to amend the charter thus granted.”

A remark by UD’s general counsel that legislators cannot change the charter without the consent of the board of trustees raised plenty of eyebrows on the other side of the semicircle table last week.

“That is a shocking statement,” said Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat. “I have not heard anyone” previously claim the legislature can’t edit a section of state law.

According to Sen. Dave Sokola, a Newark Democrat who co-chairs the committee, lawmakers plan to introduce a bill that would open the university up to records requests to a greater degree.

Currently, just meetings of the full board of trustees are public. While UD also must disclose its use of state funds, that accounts for only about 10 percent of its spending.

Increased requests for funding, partially due to the larger pool of revenue the state has available compared to a few years ago, have prompted some legislators to start taking a more critical look at UD. Concerns about campus sexual assault and drinking have also brought a new focus on the institution, as well as efforts by a few advocates.

Additionally, President Assanis and other administrators have irked lawmakers at times, both with asks for millions of dollars and with comments perceived as shifting criticism of UD to the state.

One day after UD’s hearing, it was DelTech’s turn. Several legislators thanked DelTech President Mark Brainard for his willingness to work with the state, a pointed message for the University of Delaware.

They had a similar message for new DSU President Tony Allen. DSU, in contrast to UD, has made an effort to partner more with the state in recent years, with Mr. Allen saying administrators see the institution as a state agency.

“We are Delaware’s state university,” he told the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement.

Gov. Carney’s proposal would earmark $10 million in the capital bond bill for each university. DSU is seeking an additional $15 million, mostly to enhance the look and feel of the campus, as well as public safety.

Woof!

Dogs are officially back on the menu.

Well, OK, not quite. But they are allowed in eateries once again.

After the Division of Public Health announced over the summer it would begin enforcing a little-known law barring pups from outdoor seating areas at restaurants, an outcry ensued.

In response, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, introduced legislation giving restaurants and similar establishments like beer gardens the ability to choose if they want to allow leashed dogs. The measure passed the General Assembly overwhelmingly and was signed into law last week.

“I was shocked to hear that pets couldn’t accompany their owners to restaurants after years of this policy not being enforced. Many, including myself, had no idea this policy existed,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said in a statement.

“Like many Delawareans, I always enjoyed taking my dog with me to grab breakfast. I know that both residents and visitors appreciate being able to bring their dog along when they go to get a coffee, bagel or sandwich and sit outside their favorite establishment. With this new law, we’ve resolved the issue for good so that without any confusion, restaurateurs and patrons can go back to the system we had enjoyed for years.”

Gov. Carney made the proposal official at Woody’s Dewey Beach, a popular restaurant that has accommodated dogs on its outside patio for years.