Lawmakers begin process of analyzing state budget

DOVER — Budget-writing legislators pledged Tuesday to tackle the state’s proposed spending plan in a different way than in years past, starting more from scratch and placing greater focus on effectiveness of individual programs.

The Joint Finance Committee convened for the first time this year to begin the monthlong process of examining the budget, with testimony to come from each agency.

Even once the 12 members finish analyzing state spending, more steps remain. Gov. John Carney will present his proposal in late March, and it may differ substantially from the recommendations of former Gov. Jack Markell in January.

On Tuesday JFC members heard from the Office of Management and Budget, Department of Technology and Information, and Department of State and also took a broad look at the budget picture.

“What we’re going to do is we’re really going to dive into the base budget. We’re really going to take an opportunity to look at all of the different programs the state is funding, all of the different contracts,” JFC Chairwoman Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, said.

Her co-chair, Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, described the process as looking at a building from an artist’s rendering rather than a blueprint.

Based on revenue and spending projections, the state must confront a $350 million gap, a source of much discussion since the latest revenue forecast in December.

“We have a spending problem, we have a revenue problem and both are structural,” Secretary of Finance Rick Geisenberger told JFC members.

The state government relies heavily on money from abandoned property, the lottery and the corporate franchise tax, areas that do not reliably grow with the economy.

Delaware is also seeing an increasing number of retirees, who often pay lower taxes.

Most of the spending growth comes from health care, Medicaid, government salaries and pensions.

The JFC has two new members this year: Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, and Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley. The committee consists of eight Democrats and four Republicans but could be evenly split by the time budget hearings end.

A special election for the vacant 10th Senate District seat will be held Feb. 25. With the Senate split at 10-10 between Democrats and Republicans, the winning candidate’s party will control the Senate.

A Republican victory would mean the two parties share control of the JFC for the first time in nine years and would limit Gov. Carney’s ability to enact his agenda,

Members and spectators were briefly reminded of the stakes when Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, questioned why there is not an even number of Democratic and Republican senators on the committee. Because Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, a Democrat, did not resign her 10th District seat until after the chamber convened last month, the Democratic Party still holds the Senate.

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