Legislature exits in early hours of morning with finished budget

DOVER — At 5:30 in the morning, 11 hours after lawmakers gaveled in for the last time this year, Gov. Jack Markell signed the state’s $3.9 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning today.

In one of the longest final legislative days in years, officials passed a host of legislation, hammering out compromises for a variety of key bills.

The final day began Tuesday afternoon with a budget meeting and ended with a bill-signing as the sun rose the next day, leaving lawmakers feeling a mix of emotions — but chiefly exhaustion.

Lobbyists, activists and officials began flocking to Legislative Hall early Tuesday and remained for hours, but as afternoon turned into evening, evening turned into night and night turned into early morning, the capitol started to empty. After hours of inaction, pieces started to fall into place around midnight, culminating in a brief early morning ceremony Wednesday when the governor officially made the budget law.

Of the seven budget bills Gov. Markell has signed, this one came across his desk the latest.

Despite fears from some that no infrastructure deal would be reached and the bond bill would be rejected, all the key money bills received strong support in both chambers, alleviating concerns the General Assembly would have to return soon for a special session to prevent construction projects going temporarily unfunded.

01dsn Last Night of the Gen Assembly 001In the end, after months of officials fretting over a tight budget and announcing their intentions to make “tough decisions,” Delaware’s fiscal year 2016 budget totals $3.91 billion, 2.6 percent higher than the previous budget.

The $456 million bond bill is a slight decrease of 1 percent from fiscal year 2015, but it is an increase of approximately $82 million from the version filed Monday, the result of Division of Motor Vehicles rates increasing through a bill passed by the Legislature in the last day.

The budget contains a previously announced $250 pay increase for state employees, part of a $500 raise phased in since January.

Proposed cuts go by wayside

During the course of several budget meetings held over the course of Tuesday afternoon to Wednesday morning, budget writers walked back a number of cuts previously made.

Zeroing out the Agriculture Lands Preservation Program? No more.

Wiping out lawmaker-directed money for local road projects? Nah.

Shifting the cost for police patrols in Sussex County to the county? Changed our minds.

Legislators provided $3 million in funding for the preservation program, restored the Community Transportation Fund to the previous level of $16.75 million and chose to continue allocating $1.2 million to share police costs.

By dipping into one-time settlement money and using expected new revenue that will come from the DMV bill, legislators were able to keep up funding for some programs they had previously decided to slash.

Budget writers repeatedly had touted the decisions to make cuts as very difficult, but pressure from outside groups and Legislative Hall dissenters helped sway them.

Restoring the services with settlement funds does solve problems — but only for now. It ensures decision-makers will need to either consider cuts next year or use more settlement money, if it remains, should no new revenue arise.

For now, lawmakers have eliminated some pressure on them by providing services many had accepted as gone just hours before the changes were restored. Planned 5 percent cuts to all grant-in-aid programs also were avoided, as JFC again turned to settlement money.

Restoring the Community Transportation Fund gives each lawmaker $260,000 to allocate for local projects as he or she sees fits, while adding back the full $5 million in municipal street aid provides money for cities to perform roadwork. That will allow officials to continue paving potholes, something that would not have been possible had no new revenue sources been developed.

The governor had recommended $3 million for municipal aid and $125,000 per legislator for the Community Transportation Fund.

AG unhappy

Of the $61 million the Attorney General’s Office received in two settlements, about $29.8 million remains. JFC plans to hold on to that for next year, when the state is expected to face a larger shortfall.

The settlements were with Bank of America and Citi as a result of the United States’ foreclosure crisis.

In a post to Facebook several hours after the budget bill was signed, Attorney General Matt Denn expressed disappointment none of the funding was used for priorities he had laid out, such as police patrols, after-school activities and video cameras.

“To the Delawareans who are living every day with the consequences of violent crime, and others in our state who think it is an important issue, I am sorry I wasn’t able to persuade the legislature to invest in these programs, and I want you to know that I am going to keep on trying,” he wrote.

After some hand-wringing and threats to hold it up, the bond bill received just one “no” vote, likely as a result of the changes made to restore farmland preservation and other cuts. Potential opposition from the Senate Republican caucus over language granting the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control the ability to increase some fees never materialized.

Look to the future

After more than 10 hours of discussion last week, the final committee meeting was painless. Members made changes and finalized a substitute bill around 2:30 a.m.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a bond bill,” bond committee Co-Chairman Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown, said upon conclusion. “We have one that I think that you guys can go upstairs and be proud of.”

By comparison, what figured to be the most straightforward and least controversial of the three money bills received the most opposition on the chamber floors.

01dsn Last Night of the Gen Assembly 009The budget passed the House 30-9 but not before words were exchanged after an amendment focused on charter schools failed. Several representatives also warned of a financial hole the state is facing for the next year, expressing regret little action was taken over the past five months to prepare for the potential shortfall.

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, perhaps the most outspoken member of the General Assembly, called it the “height of irresponsibility” that the Joint Finance Committee included a provision allowing charter schools to keep extra money allocated for student transportation when public schools have to pay back the difference.

An estimate found charter schools kept $1.1 million in 2014, he wrote in a letter to other lawmakers.

“I see certainty in one thing: We’re going to be facing a dramatic hole in revenue available next year, somewhere between 160 to $200 million,” Rep. Kowalko said on the House floor. “And we refuse to act on that.”

His amendment was defeated 27-12.

Several members of the House painted a grim picture of the state’s future and criticized the Joint Finance Committee for some of its decisions.

“There was no revenue increases this year. This is a terrible path for our state to take,” Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, said. “I think as a General Assembly we have failed our residents of this state. The much larger budget deficit next year is going to be near impossible to address, largely because of our failure to address it this year.”

The dissenters were few, and one leading lawmaker was quick to fire back.

Wearing his famous Oscar The Grouch necktie, Sen. Colin Bonini (R-Dover) poses a question during a Senate debate on the last night of the General Assembly of 2015. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Wearing his famous Oscar The Grouch necktie, Sen. Colin Bonini (R-Dover) poses a question during a Senate debate on the last night of the General Assembly of 2015. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

“I would respectfully suggest that the people who vote not to support the budget at this time, on this vote, are the ones that are failing the people of Delaware, because you’re voting not to support the money for teachers, for police, for all the things that are important to our constituents,” JFC Co-Chair Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, said on the House floor.

Members of the House applauded JFC for passing the budget, congratulating one another for making tough decisions, although few major cuts were made.

In the Senate, the bill passed 18-3 with little dissent.

Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, did protest what he called an “unsustainable formula” and continued to advocate for cuts to Medicaid and salaries.

The bond bill contains $10 million for the Delaware Economic Development Office’s Strategic Fund, which is used to attract companies to Delaware. It received more than twice that — about $22.2 million — in fiscal year 2015.

Additional funding will instead go to the port of Wilmington, the Kent County Regional Sports Complex and the company that operates Wilmington’s Frawley Stadium.

The Senate finished first Wednesday morning, with the House wrapping up a short time later. Lawmakers soon scattered, eager to return to their homes — and presumably to get some sleep.

It was a marathon day like few others in recent years.

 

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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