Senate approves $4.27 billion state spending plan

DOVER — The Senate passed the budget Wednesday, a sharp contrast to 2017, when legislators failed to approve a spending plan before the June 30 end of the fiscal year.

The measure passed 19-1, with one absent and now goes to the House. Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, was the lone senator to vote against the bill.

“I believe the bill introduced last week was the earliest the budget’s ever been introduced,” said Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington.

The Senate also approved a bill Wednesday that will provide 12 weeks of paid leave for state employees. It now goes to Gov. John Carney, who will sign it.

The budget is $4.27 billion, an increase of 3.99 percent over the current year’s total of $4.10 billion. However, that does not include a $49 million supplement that would give state workers and pensioners a bonus.

Touted by the administration as one-time spending, that supplement would bring the total increase to 5.21 percent over this year. It will be voted on separately.

There are five regularly scheduled legislative days remaining.

On family leave, by a 16-4 vote, with one absent, the chamber passed the legislation that will establish the most generous family leave policy in the United States.

“All this bill will do is relieve pressure, but when you make that pro-con list, should we have another child, this is something you can move from the con to the pro list,” Kristin Dwyer, a lobbyist with the Delaware State Education Association, told the Senate.

House Bill 3 will give employees of state government or school districts up to 12 weeks of paid leave if they have a baby or adopt a child no older than 6. Leave will expire if not used after one year and will cover only full-time employees who have been with the state for at least a year.

It will apply to both mothers and fathers.

While the measure was first introduced in April 2017, it failed to make progress last year because of budget issues. This year has been a different story, however, with legislators having hundreds of millions more in revenue.

Gov. Carney endorsed the bill in his January State of the State, and it passed the House last week by a 27-13 margin. Every Democrat in the Senate supported the measure, while Republicans were mixed, with five joining the majority to back the bill.

Opponents cited concerns the bill will disrupt student learning by taking teachers out of classrooms for three months and will place too much stress on the already understaffed Department of Correction.

The measure’s fiscal note estimates an annual cost of $3.9 million to the state and $1.3 million divided between Delaware’s 19 school districts. It projects teachers in Delaware schools will give birth 446 times per year, on average.

While the state is authorized to compensate districts for a substitute up to $104 a day, the estimate indicates the median daily pay for a long-term substitute teacher is $151, meaning the difference would have to be made up by the districts.

“What we also have to worry about are those children who are left behind in the schools without an adequate teacher,” Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said.

Tammy Croce, executive director of the Delaware Association of School Administrators, expressed the organization’s opposition to the bill, noting districts already have trouble finding qualified substitutes.

Amendments from Sen. Simpson that would have lowered the period to six weeks and caused the bill to expire in three years were defeated, with only Republicans backing the proposed changes.

Supporters called the bill “the right thing to do” and argued it won’t represent a big change from what currently happens when women get pregnant.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires employers to allow individuals to take 12 weeks off to care for a family member or new child, but it does not mandate they be paid, and so many state employees exhaust their sick and vacation time upon having a child.

“I think there’s this unsubstantiated belief that this bill will create a baby boom,” Ms. Dwyer said.

While she admitted districts have trouble finding substitute teachers, she does not believe House Bill 3 will seriously exacerbate that issue.

Sen. Dave Sokola, D-Newark, proposed schools make an effort to hire retired teacher as temporary replacements, noting he has worked as a substitute before and enjoyed being a long-term substitute more than a short-term fill-in.

According to a 2013 study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the United States is one of only eight countries — and the only “high-income” nation — that does not offer paid leave to new mothers. Four states currently have paid leave policies, although those are less expansive than House Bill 3, and some companies provide leave.

Supporters hope House Bill 3 will help Delaware recruit and retain workers.

“State workers and teachers deserve time to spend with their families when their children are born, and this benefit for new mothers and fathers will help us attract and keep good employees,” Gov. Carney said in a statement following the vote. “Thank you to all state workers, members of the General Assembly, and advocates who helped Delaware lead on this important issue. With this vote today, Delaware is making clear that we support and value families. I look forward to signing this legislation into law.”

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

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