House sends $4.52 billion budget to governor but two spending bills remain

DOVER — The House of Representatives approved a spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 on Wednesday, sending the budget bill to the governor. By a 40-1 vote, the chamber solidified the $4.52 billion general operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

While the budget is now complete with about a week to spare, lawmakers still have two other spending bills to pass.

Senate Republicans abstained on the capital bond and grant-in-aid bills Tuesday, protesting Democrats did not give them enough time to review the measures and get constituent feedback. Because both proposals need supermajorities, they failed even though Democrats make up a majority in the legislature.

The Senate will try again Thursday and is expected to approve the two measures with ease. They will then go the House.

Although it’s not quite clear when the House would vote on the bills, legislators meet for the final time this calendar year on Tuesday.

At $4.52 billion, the operating budget marks the largest total in state history, an increase of about 1.6% from the current fiscal year. The governor’s January proposal came to $4.64 billion, which would have been a jump of 4.3%.

The grant-in-aid measure, which funds assorted nonprofits, is about $54.5 million, a very slight decrease from the current $55 million allocation.

The January recommendations from the executive branch became history earlier this spring, with COVID prompting a sharp drop in revenues. Although the forecasts for May and June were more optimistic than April’s, Delaware still saw a big net loss in combined revenues for this fiscal year and the next one: down about $530 million from January to June.

Rep. Quinn Johnson, a Middletown Democrat who co-chairs the budget-writing committee, noted lawmakers approved the spending plan without lowering employee pay or hours, raising the cost for health care or cutting services, all things done during the Great Recession.

Rep. Quinn Johnson

“We started this process in February with high hopes of being able to move forward with a number of very important initiatives that would greatly help the citizens of Delaware. Those hopes were quickly wiped away when we encountered the first global pandemic the world has experience in over 100 years,” he told colleagues.

Delaware is in a much better position than most states thanks to its cautious budgeting process, he said. The state spends only 98% of available revenues and started an unofficial reserve account a few years ago to sock away extra money exactly for situations like this.

Legislators pulled some money out of the fund, which now contains $63.1 million — half the total at the start of the fiscal year.

The operating budget’s growth comes in “door openers,” areas the state is obligated to fund, such as Medicaid and increased school enrollment.

Initiatives like clean water funding had to be scaled back or slashed entirely, with hopes of being addressed next year.

Budget officials have described the spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year as a “bridge,” a straightforward plan intended to help get the state from this fiscal year to the one beginning in 2021, when the economic situation hopefully looks very different.

The only opposition the bill faced Wednesday came from Rep. Rich Collins, a Millsboro Republican.

“When this pandemic started, I certainly supported some of the actions taken by the executive branch,” he said.

Rep. Rich Collins

“But as time has passed on and as it has gotten dramatically less serious, we still find that many, many of our constitutional rights and many aspects of state code have been set aside by, essentially, the authority of one person, and I am not going to vote to continue to empower that when there is absolutely no indication of when it ever might end.”

Gov. John Carney has not given a timeline on lifting the state of emergency in place since mid-March, with health officials repeatedly warning the threat of the virus has not abated. 

During discussion on the budget, the House defeated the annual attempt by Rep. John Kowalko, a Newark Democrat, to move education transportation savings from charter schools to the Department of Education.

Due to the virus, the General Assembly has been meeting online for the first time. The sessions are conducted through Zoom and can be viewed live through the caucus’ Facebook pages or the chamber’s YouTube pages (Senate and House.) Links are also shared on the legislature’s website.

Legislative Hall has been closed since March 12, the day after Delaware’s first confirmed coronavirus case was announced.