Largest capital bond bill in state history flies through Senate

DOVER — The Senate approved the largest capital bond bill in state history Thursday, unanimously sending the $863 million spending plan to the House.

The measure, which will take effect for the fiscal year starting July 1, totals about $47 million more than the current year’s bond bill and $184 million more than the governor’s January recommendation. The increase is the result of revenue projections climbing by around $320 million since January and of the administration’s push to stem budget growth by limiting what the state spends on recurring items, which carry costs into the future.

The state is actually spending about $10 million less on non-transportation-related items in the new bond bill, but its investment in roads and bridges is up by about $57 million compared to the current year.

“With this bill we are making an unprecedented investment in the future of Delaware and the infrastructure it depends on,” Sen. Dave Sokola, a Newark Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement, told senators.

The bond bill was finalized by the committee Tuesday, and the first copy was printed just a few hours before Thursday’s vote.

Contained in the spending plan is $154 million for education, nearly all of which will go to school construction. Other allocations in the legislation include $6.85 million for the preliminary phase of building new Kent and Sussex Family Court facilities, $6.35 million for radios for state police, $12.5 million for the fund used to incentivize companies to settle or stay in Delaware, $10.35 million for the University of Delaware, $13 million for Delaware State University, $10 million for Delaware Technical Community College and $20 million for water cleanup.

New in the current bond bill is a fund higher education institutes have the opportunity to use for economic development projects. A total of $11.375 million was allocated for that account in the fiscal year ending June 30, with $1.375 million going to Wesley College and the rest being divided among the state’s three public institutions.

The bond bill for the upcoming fiscal year allocates $20 million to the fund, expands it to include private entities and changes language to enable money to be earmarked to retain jobs and to provide college access to Delawareans.

The expansion is intended to cover Wesley College, which has been struggling financially and is working with the state and an outside vendor to conduct a review of its expenditures and assets. While it’s unclear publicly exactly how bad the situation is for the liberal arts college, which reported an enrollment of 1,228 students in the fall, state officials have acknowledged a need to provide assistance.

The fund, which Wilmington University and Goldey-Beacom College would also be eligible to tap into, is what lawmakers and the executive branch hope is the answer to that need.

Gov. John Carney noted Wesley will still have to apply for that funding and prove it has a good use for it.

“I think they have a role in our state that’s changing, and so this’ll be an opportunity to see how they decide to fit into that,” he said. “There’s talk of improving some of their health care programs, nursing programs, expanding some of those, and so we’ll see. Again, it’s a challenge grant, it’s not something that’s guaranteed.”

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat, echoed Gov. Carney’s point about the application process.

“They’re good for a little while, so if they can put together a plan — and they have to change their business model. There’s other ways they can do things, things like online courses, which are very low in cost and good in revenue. So, there’s different things that they can take under consideration,” he said, emphasizing the economic impact the small school has on central Delaware.

The bond bill also contains language letting Wesley use the $1.375 million, originally intended to revamp the former Dover Public Library, for general purposes. Wesley will still have to eventually expend that amount of money on the building, which it purchased from the city for $1 in 2017.

The House will vote on the bond bill Sunday, the final regularly scheduled day of the legislative session.

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