Legislature’s finance panel works to fill $83M shortfall

 

 

DOVER — The General Assembly’s budget committee met Tuesday to begin finalizing the state’s budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Throughout this week and next, the 12-member Joint Finance Committee will draft the 2016 budget based on the governor’s January $3.9 billion recommendation.

Delaware Office of Management and Budget director Ann Visalli, right, and deputy director Brian Maxwell speak before the Joint Finance Committee Tuesday afternoon. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Delaware Office of Management and Budget director Ann Visalli, right, and deputy director Brian Maxwell speak before the Joint Finance Committee Tuesday afternoon. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

The state is facing an unplanned $83 million shortfall, owing to higher health-care costs and declining revenues.

Revenue projections have dropped about $53 million since December, and the Legislature’s decision to push a state committee to not raise deductibles for state workers necessitated JFC members findind $21 million to make up that deficit.

On Tuesday, lawmakers began markup with the areas they judged the least controversial and most straightforward, as they set aside sums for the departments of State, Finance and Labor, among other agencies.

While some minor cuts were made as a reflection of the deficit the state is facing, they barely made a dent on the obstacle. The committee will continue meeting to try to clear up the multi-million hole the government is in.

Joint Finance Committee chair Rep. Melanie George Smith (D-Bear/Newark) and co-chair Harris B. McDowell III (D-Wilmington North) preside over the meeting Tuesday at Legislative Hall.  (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers

Joint Finance Committee chair Rep. Melanie George Smith (D-Bear/Newark) and co-chair Harris B. McDowell III (D-Wilmington North) preside over the meeting Tuesday at Legislative Hall. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers

A total of $75,000 toward mosquito treatment was cut, as was $200,000 toward workforce development. A cut of about $6,600 of the money given to the Governor’s Advisory Council for Exceptional Citizens came as a surprise to council Chairman Robert Overmiller.

The money, which previously had been granted to allow the council to set up a unified website, will no longer be available, making it difficult to set up an inter-connected site, Mr. Overmiller said.

The $83 million deficit includes $12.6 million that would have to be made up if the state opts not to cut an elderly property tax subsidy. Proposed by the governor to help balance the budget, the cut would halve a subsidy given to seniors based on school property taxes.

With residents speaking out against it, some lawmakers have taken a hard stance in response to the cut.

Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, the committee co-chair, said after the three-hour hearing that JFC plans to discuss the proposal Thursday. If members opt to side with the governor and adopt his cut, that would eliminate $12.6 million of the shortfall.

After recent discussions with the State Employee Benefits Committee, JFC members agreed to set aside $21 million in General Fund money to cover the health care deficit. Raising deductibles would have brought in about $41 million, but constituent pressure scuttled that plan.

Despite the additional burden placed on JFC to make cuts (or hope for favorable revenue projections), Rep. George Smith said that is preferable to requiring state workers face higher costs.

“I think it’s a recognition that state employees have continually been asked to do more with less, that they take state positions oftentimes at lower salaries than they could obtain in the private sector knowing that they have benefits that are good for themselves and their families, and so I think that’s a primary motivator for people, good people, to take state employment, and so this is our commitment to them,” she said.

Lawmakers have not yet talked about using some of the $61 million gained by the Department of Justice through settlements to cover costs. Attorney General Matthew P. Denn had proposed using $36 million for schools, substance abuse treatment and police patrols.

Legislators opted Tuesday to hold all funding changes for pass-through programs — non-state agencies receiving state money — until later. Some epilogue language, which governs spending of certain funds, also was put to the side to allow legislators and officials time to clarify some regulations.

Although JFC will not be dealing with the 2017 budget, that could be a tricky area for the state. Budget officials are anticipating a $204.4 million shortfall then, owing to projected revenue decreases and cost increases such as Medicaid and step salary raises.

The committee will meet again today to continue plotting out the state’s fiscal future.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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