State budget negotiations collapse

 

DOVER — Budget talks took a step backward Tuesday, raising further questions about the likelihood of the budget being settled by the end of the week.

Republican lawmakers announced they are planning legislation that would fund the government through the month of July if the General Assembly is unable to come to a consensus on balancing the budget.

Senior GOP leadership also skipped a meeting with Gov. John Carney and Democratic lawmakers, leaving Democrats seething.

The news comes as June 30, the final day of the first leg of the 149th General Assembly, draws near and lawmakers remain without a budget deal.

Leaders of all four caucuses have been meeting for five months to balance the budget but have failed to reach an agreement thus far, raising questions about what happens procedurally if there is no budget come July 1.

The Republican announcement Tuesday means the state might be able to avoid a government shutdown, although budget officials, who have not seen the draft legislation, still are unsure as to how exactly the funding would work and Democrats said they have questions about the legality of the continuing resolution, throwing another wrench into the mix.

The proposal would fund the budget for July at “current rates of spending,” according to a news release.

The release caught Democrats unaware and left them scrambling to respond: Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Wilmington Manor, said he would talk when the bill is introduced and then several hours later issued a statement expressing “determination to get a fair, balanced budget deal done before the end of this legislative session.”

A spokesman for Gov. Carney in an email criticized the Republican announcement.

John Carney Jr.

“The Republican proposal to put off the difficult decisions we need to make is not the right move,” Jon Starkey said. “The governor proposed a long-term, balanced budget plan in March. It’s the General Assembly’s responsibility to pass a budget by June 30. The people of Delaware and the governor expect them to do that.”

House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said lawmakers had a productive closed-door meeting Tuesday morning, but then things fell apart. Republicans said they would not produce votes on tax bills without prevailing wage reform, according to Rep. Schwartzkopf, which Democrats have steadfastly opposed.

Prevailing wage governs the rates paid to laborers on state-funded projects, and Republican lawmakers say several bills they have introduced would lower costs by 24 percent by halting prevailing wage.

Under the wage, an electrician on a state-funded construction job in Delaware earns $66.85 an hour, while the average hourly wage for an electrician nationwide is $27.24.

The two parties appear to be stuck waiting to see who blinks first.

“Republicans are fond of saying we kicked the can down the road,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said. “Well, we’re trying to fix it. We’re trying to fix it this year, we’re trying to take the hard votes to fix, we’re looking for partners in this thing. They’ve been pushing this off every month.”

The caucuses are working on a resolution that would create committees to examine Medicaid costs, school district consolidation and limiting spending. Republicans are not content with just studying the issues but want to ensure the reports produced by the committees are not simply set aside by Democrats.

“The precedent that’s living on in the perpetuity right now without some changes is a government that gets more expensive, less effective and efficient every year,” Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said.

“So, we’re trying to make those structural changes that we hear the governor and the other side want by putting teeth into some sort of agreement that forces us to come back and look at these issues next year. That’s the reality. If that has to take three extra days to figure it out, then that has to take three extra days to figure it out.”

Democrats have proposed closing a budget gap of about $390 million with an even mix of taxes and cuts, although some of those cuts would be shifted to local governmental units.

The Joint Finance Committee meeting for Tuesday was canceled about 90 minutes after it was supposed to begin, and the committee is set to meet today.

The clock is ticking.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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