Legislative budget-writing panel about to enter drama-filled final days

 

DOVER — Budget-writing lawmakers continued to defer on major elements of the state government’s proposed spending plan Tuesday, leaving more than $2 billion yet to be decided.

With three of the five scheduled budget markup days in the books, few hard decisions have been made.

Lawmakers have barely put a dent in the multimillion-dollar shortfall facing the state.

On Tuesday the Joint Finance Committee continued what it started last week, approving “boilerplate” language and sections unchanged from the current budget while avoiding decisions on many major and controversial areas.

About $72.9 million remains, but the JFC co-chairs reiterated the budget will be finished by the end of Thursday’s markup session, even as Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, acknowledged at one point the committee continues to “kick the can down the road on votes.”

Among the sections of the budget that have not been touched are the Department of Education, Department of Health and Social Services, University of Delaware and Delaware State Police.

“Where the governor has made new additions or deletions from last year’s budget, we’ve put those items on hold so the committee will have further opportunity to examine those changes,” Rep. George Smith said.

Legislators will have to make cuts today and Thursday and many of the new or expanded initiatives proposed by Gov. Jack Markell or other lawmakers will go by the wayside due to the state’s fiscal picture.

JFC will also dip into “pockets of money” and promote greater efficiency, Rep. George Smith said.

“We’re trying to minimize those cuts that will be made to the ones that will be the least painful,” she said.

Last year’s final budget ultimately topped the governor’s recommended spending by about $9 million, something JFC co-chairs Rep. George Smith and Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, said will not have happen this year.

Among the cuts that could occur is funding state police patrols in Sussex County, which carries with it a cost of a $1.2 million and is being covered through one-time settlement money.

Lawmakers advocated for a few things close to their hearts Tuesday. Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, pushed for casino relief and an additional Kent County public defender, although discussions on specific items were generally brief.

The fate of $6 million earmarked by Gov. Markell for Wilmington school redistricting remains up in the air, dependent on what the full General Assembly does.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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