House sends budget to Carney

Gov. John Carney

DOVER — By a 40-0 vote, the House passed the budget Tuesday, sending it to Gov. John Carney. He is expected to sign the $4.271 billion spending plan Thursday.

It is the earliest the General Assembly has passed a budget in four years, and it stands in marked contrast to last year, when lawmakers missed their deadline and did not come to an agreement on balancing the budget until late July 2. The budget was then signed shortly after 1 a.m. July 3.

This year was far smoother, owing to an unexpected windfall in several areas, such as personal income tax, the franchise tax and the corporate tax.

“The House’s vote is a satisfying cap on the fastest budget process I have seen in my 42 years in state government,” Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Harris McDowell, a Wilmington Democrat, said in a statement. “But the expediency of this year’s process didn’t come at the expense of prudence or attention to detail.

“The budget that the House voted on today invests more in state employees’ livelihoods for the first time in years, increases special education funding for students that were previously left out, and works to address staffing shortages in our correctional system. I’m grateful to my colleagues in the House for reaffirming those priorities today.”

Not included in the budget itself but expected to be signed with it is a supplementary bill totaling $49.2 million in one-time spending. Most of that will go to current and former state workers, providing employees a $500 bonus and pensioners a one-time payment of $400.

The budget itself will offer a $1,000 pay raise to most state employees and a 2 percent increase for teachers.

Combined, the operating budget and its supplement mark a 5.2 percent jump over the current year’s total of $4.106 billion. Gov. Carney unveiled a $4.250 billion proposal in January.

After 2017 saw the General Assembly fail to pass a budget by the end of the fiscal year and have to return in July for the first time in 40 years, members of both parties pledged they would work together in 2018. While there are still three legislative days remaining and people around Legislative Hall are fond of noting nothing is guaranteed, it appears that cooperation has worked.

Built on Gov. Carney’s recommendations and developed by the Joint Finance Committee, the budget was introduced June 12, the earliest a spending plan has been filed in at least 19 years. The date of passage of June 26 is also the second-earliest the budget has been approved since 2003, with 2014 beating it by one day.

The budget received just one “no” vote across both chambers, with only Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican known to annually object to the fiscal plan, casting a vote against it.

“Delawareans rightly expect us to pass a balanced budget, to work together to protect taxpayer dollars, and make investments that will move our state forward. We have more work to do, but this budget will accomplish those goals,” Gov. Carney said in a statement.

“We are responsibly limiting budget growth, and setting aside surplus revenues, while making investments in our schools, our communities, and our state workplaces that will make our state more competitive over the long run. I want to thank members of the Joint Finance Committee and the entire General Assembly for their work on the budget. I look forward to signing it into law.”

JFC inserted a variety of services, initiatives, programs and raises beyond what the governor recommended, with the annual spending plan set to include $4.7 million to pay contracted direct support professionals more, $3.9 million to help pensioners with health care costs, $4.1 million for bus contractors, $2.9 million to hire special education teachers for students in kindergarten to third grade and $3.6 million for reading-assistance teachers.

In what may be a first, the committee also budgeted only 97, rather than 98, percent of revenue, setting aside an extra $46.7 million for next year, when revenue projections are a bit grimmer.

“If we had done what our every instinct in our body was telling us to do, which was to support the vulnerable people who have been cut, cut, cut, cut over the years, if we had done that, we would be building into our budget unsustainable expenditures that next year or the year after … the General Assembly would just have to come back at the end and cut anyway,” JFC co-chair Rep. Melanie George Smith, a Bear Democrat, said on the House floor.

Other than her, only Rep. John Kowalko, a Newark Democrat, spoke about the budget on the House floor Tuesday. In recognition of a change to the grant-in-aid proposal, Rep. Kowalko, who has for years introduced unsuccessful amendments to remove a provision allowing charter schools to keep leftover transportation funds provided by the state, struck two amendments that would do the same thing.

The grant-in-aid measure is set to include language stating any excess funding must be used by charters to benefit low-income students or those who do not speak English as a native language.

In addition to the supplemental budget bill, the Legislature still has to vote on the $816.3 million capital spending plan, as well as the $45.9 million allocated to various nonprofits through grant-in-aid. Various non-financial bills, such as marijuana legalization, are also pending this week.

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