Lawson: State not tough enough on crime

 

DOVER — Lawmakers’ decision to provide crime-prevention funds for Dover and Wilmington, with strings attached to the Wilmington money, was the headline from Wednesday’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) meeting but it was far from the only thing members examined during their seven-hour gathering.

The Education Department’s budget, Medicaid fraud and the projected deficit for the upcoming fiscal year were also discussed, with varying ideas and strong passions on display at points.

Speaking to Wilmington police Chief Bobby Cummings, Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, opined the state is not tough enough on crime.

Sen. David G. Lawson

Sen. David G. Lawson

“What he’s saying is we have a large recidivism issue,” Sen. Lawson, a former police officer, said. “It’s repeat offenders, they’re not being prosecuted, they’re not being locked up and these are the main folks that are causing the problem. He had to be politically correct. I don’t.

“And this is the issue. And until we get the prosecution and these people put away, we would continue to put our cops’ lives in danger, we will continue to put our people in Wilmington in danger. This is not a police function, this is a prosecutor function and it is failing miserably.”

The Department of Justice, he said afterward, takes too many plea bargains.

As a whole, Delaware has in some ways shifted toward a less-harsh criminal justice approach more focused on rehabilitation.

Some state officials have pushed to change some sentencing guidelines, such as removing the mandatory life sentence for someone convicted for a third violet felony and lifting limited drug possession from the list of violent crimes, efforts supported by Attorney General Matt Denn.

“The Department of Justice takes violent crime very seriously,” spokesman Carl Kanefsky said via email. “If there is any particular plea bargain that Senator Lawson thinks was inappropriate since Attorney General Denn took office we are happy to review it.”

Education budget

Members of the Joint Finance Committee, several of whom are strongly against the Education Department, also criticized top administrators Wednesday. A number of lawmakers, not just in JFC but in the General Assembly as a whole, see the department as bloated and heavy-handed.

In June, JFC opted not to provide a requested $3.75 million that would be used to continue paying eight employees hired with expiring federal money. The department shifted those employees, all of whom make at least $85,020, to vacant positions. While the shift was not expressly prohibited, budget writers expressed frustration when the move was revealed in October and again Wednesday.

“In a year when we were scraping the bottom of the barrel for money, they had a million, apparently,” Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton. “They could have merged duties and saved a million dollars.”

Lawmakers questioned new Secretary Steven Godowsky on pay levels for the department’s 262 employees. Unlike other state agencies, education workers’ salaries vary depending on years of service and degrees held.

Several members of JFC expressed their feelings the agency employs too many high-ranking and high-salaried officials.

“There are too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” Rep. Debra Heffernan, D-Edgemoor, said.

In response, Dr. Godowsky said the agency is examining its four branches and may have recommendations for eliminating positions or even a branch in a matter of weeks.

Medicaid savings

Legislators heard from Stephen Groff, head of the Division of Medicaid and Medical Assistance. JFC criticized health officials in meetings earlier this year regarding a plan to develop a program that could identify improper Medicaid payments, but the division took longer than expected and selected a different vendor than lawmakers had planned.

Panel members had pushed for a smart card method that could identify fraud at the front end, rather than retroactively, but technological limitations and provider mistrust could make such a plan much harder to develop in practice than in theory, Mr. Groff said.

A preliminary study from the contractor Health Integrity found possibly $11 million worth of fraud, waste or mistakes out of $226 million in claims. The company examined more than three years of claims from selected areas, looking for find doctor shopping and services that could have high returns.

The state is spending about $682 million on Medicaid this fiscal year.

Eleven million dollars out of $226 million is about 5 percent, although the state may end up collecting less than that out of its overall Medicaid budget. Some money recovered would go the federal government, and some apparently improper payments may simply be incorrect billing rather than outright fraud.

“It is a low dollar amount, and I’m kind of glad that it is because that says to me I wasn’t completely wrong, there wasn’t a whole lot of low-hanging fruit, but there’s enough of identified activity here that it says to me there are opportunities that we can find things,” Mr. Groff said. “We’ve only been able to look at $226 million, which is minuscule when you think to the overall size of the program, so even if we don’t see perhaps what people had hoped to see as far as the total dollars that we might be able to recover, even a little bit, a few million, I mean, this is a large program, I think warrants continuing with the project.”

Fiscal year 2017 budget

For the fiscal year starting July 1, the state currently projects a $195 million shortfall, largely due to rising school enrollment, Medicaid and expected employee health care costs.

Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, also indicated Wednesday he planned to support a 2 percent raise for state workers.

However, some individuals, chiefly Republicans, have been skeptical of the projected figure. Revenue projections could still rise before the final budget must be crafted come the end of June, and the state has $28 million in bank settlement funds that could be used to balance the General Fund.

The governor’s recommended budget will be presented toward the end of January.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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