Panel OKs pay hike for state employees

 

DOVER — On the first day of markup budget-writing lawmakers approved a pay raise for more than 24,000 state government employees — plus an additional $500 bonus for each.

That wasn’t all.

By the time the day was finished, the Joint Finance Committee had allocated about one-fourth of uncommitted revenue to contractual services, program expansions, retiree health care and other areas, along with setting another quarter aside for the following year’s budget.

Legislators unanimously agreed to include in the budget bill a $1,000 pay raise recommended by Gov. John Carney for state employees but went further by adding a payout of $500 proposed by JFC co-chair Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington.

Gov. Carney’s January operating budget proposal totaled $4.25 billion, a 3.5 percent increase over the current year. Since then, however, revenue projections have risen by $175.9 million, along with $8 million in unspent funds from the current budget.

After the 98-percent rule — a constitutional provision requiring lawmakers to set aside 2 percent of revenue in the event of an emergency — is taken into account, JFC entered Tuesday with an extra $180.1 million of taxpayers’ money to play with. Over the course of six hours, they sliced that number in half, using around $46 million to fund new items and putting another chunk of money on ice.

Following a motion from JFC co-chair Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, the 12 legislators on the committee opted to budget only 97 percent of total revenue for the fiscal year starting July 1. That means $46.7 million will be saved for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2019, when revenue growth is expected to be less than in the upcoming budget.

Holding revenue over should avoid growing the budget to a point that spending cuts would likely be needed next year.

“I would like to splurge, but because of what we’ve been through in the past I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Rep. J.J. Johnson, D-New Castle, noting the General Assembly has repeatedly struggled to balance the budget over the past decade.

There’s still time for lawmakers to undo that action, but it appears unlikely.

Gov. Carney in a statement praised the decision, and budget officials touted it as a smart move by lawmakers.

“Delaware has a tradition of fiscal responsibility, and I want to thank members of the Joint Finance Committee for their vote today, which shows restraint, and a commitment to making responsible, long-term decisions about our finances,” the governor said.

Soon after passing a motion to set aside $46.7 million, legislators approved the bonus, which carries a cost of about $23 million. It would not be built into base salaries, unlike the $1,000 increase.

Teachers, who are set to receive a 2 percent increase next year instead of the $1,000 raise, would still get the $500 bonus.

Educators are also poised to collect step increases, given annually to certain professions in state government.

“Our state employees have lagged way behind if you measured in the region. … We felt that it’s time, since we have a little bit of leeway in terms of resources, that we make up for that,” Sen. McDowell said after the meeting.

The committee will discuss exempting legislators from that at some point this week or next.

State workers last received a salary hike two years ago, when lawmakers gave them an increase of the greater of $750 or 1.5 percent.

Other costs created Tuesday include $4.5 million for a previously agreed-upon pay increase for correctional officers, $3.9 million to help retirees with their health care costs, $4.7 million to raise the rates paid to disability support professionals and $6.4 million to hire more special education and reading resource teachers.

The budget is set to include 33 more positions to assist some special education students in kindergarten and elementary school. While additional funding is allocated annually to districts for most special ed students, those in kindergarten through third grade do not generate extra dollars for their districts.

Legislation currently awaiting a vote in the House would change that, at a cost of $2.4 million the first year and $16.8 million the fourth (split between the state and the districts about 73-27). The addition made by JFC would not go as far as the bill would.

Lawmakers on Tuesday also increased the amounts paid to contracted school bus drivers, a change drivers have said is sorely needed.

“I feel very, very grateful to the administration and to my Joint Finance colleagues for supporting as much as, frankly, we were able to get in there,” Rep. George Smith said afterward.

JFC reconvenes today to continue discussing the budget.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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