House passes $4.45B budget but bond bill remains unfinished

DOVER — The House of Representatives approved the $4.45 billion operating budget Thursday, along with a $62 million supplement.

By a 41-0 vote, the chamber sent the measure to the Senate.

Senators could consider the bill Tuesday, one of the four regularly scheduled legislative days remaining.

The spending plan, Rep. Quinn Johnson told his colleagues in the House, includes substantial investment in education and pay raises for state employees. The Middletown Democrat also touted the budget’s fiscal discipline, noting lawmakers set aside tens of millions for future years when revenues dip.

“This budget is the result of months of hard work from the members of the Joint Finance Committee, staff and the countless advocates who come to Legislative Hall to make their case for many worthwhile programs,” Rep. Johnson, who co-chairs the Joint Finance Committee, said in a statement.

“Delaware’s operating budget touches nearly every resident across the state, and we are proud to have put together a spending plan that maintains our core state services and even increases funding to many of these programs. We have an obligation to try to help our residents whenever possible, and I think we have done that while being fiscally responsible.”

This year’s budget marks an increase of 4.2 percent over the current year’s $4.27 billion general spending plan. Counting the supplement, which contains one-time appropriations for items like equipment and legal fees, the state will be spending about $190 million more in operating expenses for the fiscal year starting July 1.

For the second year in a row, the budget contains a pay raise of $1,000 or 2 percent for state employees. Teachers will see 2 percent bumps, while most other non-collectively bargained workers will pocket an extra grand.

Included in the budget is $25 million for students who come from impoverished areas or don’t speak English as a native language, $1.6 million more for basic special education for students in kindergarten or first, second or third grade, almost $1.3 million for scholarships for University of Delaware students and an additional $4.2 million for caregivers of adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

With bountiful revenues, the budget process was unusually quick and simple this year, and the budget bill was introduced on June 11, believed to be the earliest the general spending plan has been filed in decades. That’s a stark contrast to 2017, when lawmakers could not find consensus on tax hikes to balance the budget and ended up missing their deadline for the first time in 40 years.

Lawmakers spent only about 10 minutes discussing the budget Thursday, including voting down an amendment from Rep. John Kowalko.

Rep. Kowalko, a Newark Democrat, has repeatedly attempted to remove a provision allowing charter schools to keep leftover transportation funds provided by the state, and he tried once again to strip the bill of that language.

“This is a problem that we refuse to address and … I think we’re betraying our own honor as far as oversight of taxpayer funds,” he said.

State law requires charters to return excess funds to the state, but the Joint Finance Committee has gone around that through a section in the budget for nearly a decade.

Lawmakers last year changed the provision to require charter schools to “keep the difference for educational purposes that serve low-income and/or English Learners,” and that requirement appears in the budget this year as well.

Despite some initial hopes, legislators did not finish the capital bond bill Thursday. The Joint Committee on Capital Improvement plans to meet Tuesday to iron out that spending plan, which covers roads, bridges, state facilities and nature trails, among other areas.

The committee made some alterations to the bond bill Thursday, shifting $9.65 million from paving to the fund split between lawmakers to spend on transportation-related projects as they see fit.

The bond bill currently totals almost $433 million, although a list of projects the four caucuses drafted brings the bill about $12 million over budget.

“There are a lot of good things, a lot of really good things to do, but obviously we can’t do them all,” committee co-chair Sen. Dave Sokola, a Newark Democrat, said.

“The hope was that we’ll see what the priorities of each caucus are and try to figure out how much overlap there was, and so we tried to put a limit on them, and it was going to be a total of a $20 million limit, and we were hoping there would be some overlap in that. It turned out we put in more than $20 million, and while there was overlap there wasn’t as much overlap as we hoped.

“So, the administration’s going to look at our requests a little closer, try to see … what can we tie in and take off of the legislative list to lower that number down so that we don’t either have to cut too much of the what the administration wanted to do because we are way behind on deferred maintenance in a lot of places or so we minimize what we have to take from the set-aside.”

For the second consecutive year, lawmakers took advantage of favorable revenue forecasts to hold tens of millions in reserve. Spurred by the administration of Gov. John Carney, the General Assembly intends to set aside about $78 million, which would bring the total being kept for future “bust” years to $125 million.

The unofficial stabilization fund would, officials hope, enable the legislature to avoid having to make cuts to balance the budget down the road.

The Joint Finance Committee is expected to meet Wednesday to craft the grant-in-aid bill, which provides funding for nonprofits.

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