It’s full speed ahead for legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee

DOVER — The Joint Finance Committee is roaring ahead at practically record pace.

The budget-writing panel on Wednesday canceled two of its upcoming meeting days, citing the speed it is moving at. Tuesday, lawmakers voted in favor of granting a pay raise and a bonus to state employees, and they approved part of the governor’s proposed budget. After voting in favor of much of the rest of the budget recommendations Wednesday, the committee announced it would not meet Thursday or this upcoming Tuesday.

“I think it started off with the governor’s initial recommended budget. It was very, very sound and it took care of in a very responsible way the highest priority needs,” JFC co-chair Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, said after lawmakers finished work Tuesday.

“I think that what the votes today reflected, the fact that every vote was unanimous, is the Joint Finance Committee’s commitment to working together on a nonpartisan basis to ensure that we provide a fiscally responsible budget for the entire state.”

That’s in sharp contrast to last year, when the General Assembly entered the budget markup period facing a projected gap between revenues and spending of around $285 million.

Over five days, the committee reduced spending by $80 million before the final session was canceled by leadership, with Democrats saying they were still hopeful a deal could be worked out with Republicans to raise taxes and avoid further cuts.

The Legislature ended up missing its deadline, entering July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, without a budget. Lawmakers did not find consensus until late July 2.

This year, to the delight of everyone in Legislative Hall, revenue projections are considerably better. JFC entered last week with $180 million more to play with than Gov. John Carney budgeted, due to upticks in collections in personal and corporate income taxes and the franchise tax, as well as fewer refunds in abandoned property.

The extra money has enabled lawmakers to fund new programs and services, such as more resources for some special education students in kindergarten to third grade, and also increase pay for state workers and raise rates paid to contracted disability support professionals and bus drivers.

To the delight of the administration, JFC unanimously agreed to set aside almost $47 million for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2019, when revenue is expected to grow by a smaller amount.

After three straight years of exiting Legislative Hall late — past 5 a.m. on July 1 in 2015 and 2016 and not until around 1 a.m. July 3 in 2017 — this year could be quite different.

JFC will tackle the remaining items on its list, such as an increase for retirees, and formalize others, like the pay increase, Wednesday and Thursday.

School consolidation

A task force studying consolidation of school districts officially released its report earlier this month.

The final recommendations differ very little from a draft discussed at the group’s final meeting in April. That draft was previously reported.

The task force studied leaving the 19 districts as is, creating countywide districts, consolidating some services among the districts or developing countywide revenue systems. The findings do not call for merging districts.

“In reviewing the concept of countywide district consolidation, the committee agreed that there would be some opportunities to reduce expenses and create some savings in some areas; but, the overall effect of consolidating to just three districts would result in minimal savings at best and would create numerous problems related to facilities management, personnel management, salary, transportation and other logistical issues that would more than negate the benefit of any savings,” the final product states.

“The committee does recommend, however, that the concept of consolidation be revisited, as we believe there could be some significant financial benefit to consolidation of two or three contiguous districts.”

Lawmakers may still look at consolidating the three countywide vocational districts into a single statewide one.

Among the recommendations are giving districts more money for English language learners, changing the transportation funding formula, promoting greater cooperation among districts and, most notably, urging the counties to update property values.

Reassessment has not been done in decades: Kent, the most recent county to update property values, last did so in 1987.

The biggest difference between the draft and final report is the absence in the conclusions of an item stating officials should “Review the transportation allocations for charter schools to ensure all transportation funds allocated are spent only on student transportation.”

For years, the budget bill has contained a provision that allows charters to keep any difference between what the state allocates them and what they pay to a contractor for transportation.

Efforts to remove it have repeatedly been shot down.

Secretary of Education Susan Bunting said in a statement the report “has sparked conversations and ideas that will extend beyond the task force.”

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