Legislature’s budget committee approves spending plan

Governor John Carney. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — The Joint Finance Committee put its stamp on the budget Wednesday, approving a spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1. The budget builds off Gov. John Carney’s recommendations, offering a $1,000 increase to state employees, as well as a $500 bonus for all state and school district employees and a one-time payment of $400 to pensioners.

The budget totals $4.271 billion, a 3.99 percent increase over the current year, but while budget officials took pains to emphasize growth is less than 4 percent, the sum cited by the administration does not include $49 million in one-time spending.

That $49 million, which stems from unanticipated revenue, will be used to give bonuses to state workers and pensioners, set up a database to better measure the cost of health care, hold elections and other needs that will not be built into the base spending plan.

The one-time spending will be introduced as a separate bill.

If passed with no further changes, the operating budget and its supplement would mark a 5.2 percent jump over the current year’s total of $4.106 billion. Gov. Carney unveiled a $4.250 billion proposal in January.

JFC last week set aside almost $47 million for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2019. That money will remain untouched to allow the General Assembly to better craft a budget next year, when the revenue picture is not quite as rosy.

“We’ve proven we can budget responsibly and not get carried away when there are resources available,” JFC co-chair Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, said Wednesday.

“I think that it’s a little hard for some of the people that look for support to understand the strange thing about this year is that if we went overboard this year we would have to take it away next year. It’s a very strange phenomenon that happened this year, where the bulk of the new money showed up in the immediate year rather than equally in the two years following it.”

After partisan bickering last year saw JFC fail to balance the budget by the end of the May markup, 2018 was far simpler. Owing to the windfall the state is expected to receive from collections in personal and corporate income taxes and the franchise tax, as well as fewer refunds in abandoned property, legislators did not have to fret about what to cut. Instead, they had to focus on not spending too much — a welcome change from much of the past decade.

JFC ending up canceling three of its six scheduled days as it roared forward last week and Wednesday.

“We’ve done the fiscally responsible option of limiting our spending to what we believe is going to be ongoing revenues. We took some of the one-time revenues and we appropriated it in bonuses and a few other initiatives in health and so on,” co-chair Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, said.

The budget approved by the committee Wednesday will give most state employees a $1,000 raise. Teachers will get a 2 percent increase instead, as well as pay bumps they and certain other state workers are contractually obligated to receive.

Additionally, every state employee, including ones that have salaries set through collective bargaining, will pocket an extra $500.

“I don’t think (state employees) ever really recovered” from a 2.5 percent paycut they took in 2009 with Delaware facing an $850 million deficit, Rep. J.J. Johnson, D-New Castle, said. That cut was undone the next year.

Lawmakers inserted a variety of services, initiatives, programs and raises beyond what the governor recommended, with the annual spending plan set to include $4.7 million to pay contracted direct support professionals more, $3.9 million to help pensioners with health care costs, $4.1 million for bus contractors, $2.9 million to hire special education teachers for students in kindergarten to third grade and $3.6 million for reading-assistance teachers.

JFC also restored the Delaware Prescription Assistance Program one year after cutting it. Following Gov. Carney’s recommendations, lawmakers allocated $2 million for the program, which helps seniors and individuals with disabilities afford medications.

The committee set aside $850,000 to cover a decrease in federal funding for home-delivered meals provided by nonprofits the state contracts with. That work is done by City Fair in New Castle County, Modern Maturity Center in Kent County and CHEER and Meals on Wheels Lewes-Rehoboth in Sussex County.

Few, if any, things were outright cut from Gov. Carney’s proposal. His budget, and the version approved by JFC, allocates $6 million for 43 schools that have sizable percentages of students who do not speak English as a native language or come from low-income families.

It also provides more money for Delaware State University’s Inspire scholarship, 59 new positions for the Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families and funding to cover paid family leave for state employees. That last item is contingent on a bipartisan bill that would grant workers 12 weeks of paid leave.

But not everyone left happy. Advocates for retirees have been stumping for a permanent benefit increase, while probation and parole officers, who are collectively bargained, are asking for pay raises and correctional officers are seeking a more attractive retirement package.

Bipartisan legislation that would increase the rate in the formula used to determine pension amounts for COs has been sitting in committee for a year, and Correctional Officers Association of Delaware President Geoff Klopp said he was disappointed that measure was not incorporated into the budget bill.

“Summer’s coming and this is not going to do anything to help staffing, it’s going to cause people to have to work more 16-hour overtime shifts, so there will probably be some people that won’t be able to take vacations,” Mr. Klopp said.

“The inmates are going to be affected as well because there are going to be programs that they’re not able to get due to massive amount of overtime and the unsafe environment that we’ll be working in, and it just is going to cause me to lose more sleep at night because it just increases the chances of something catastrophic happening in a facility this summer tremendously.”

After Wednesday, lawmakers still have $61 million in uncommitted revenue. Some of that could go to restoring an $8 million cut to grant-in-aid last year, although the administration seems to prefer using it for the bond bill or holding it over for future years.

Gov. Carney’s proposal provided $678 million for the bond bill, with $100 million of that coming from extra revenue. That total could grow when the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement meets in two weeks.

While lawmakers won’t vote on the final budget until after June 18, when the updated revenue forecast is finished, the big-ticket items are mostly finished.

The full General Assembly returns Tuesday. June 30 is the last regularly scheduled day.

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