State spending to increase 4.2% in new budget

DOVER — The General Assembly’s budget-writing committee on Wednesday finished crafting much of the spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1.

While the exact figures were not readily available, the administration’s budget chief estimated the operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year totals about $4.45 billion, an increase of 4.2 percent over the current year’s $4.27 billion general spending plan.

Neither of those totals, however, includes supplemental budget bills containing one-time appropriations for items like equipment and legal fees.

The current year’s supplement comes to $49.2 million, while the one approved Wednesday totals approximately $62 million after lawmakers added $22.9 million to what the governor recommended.

The operating budget must still be passed by the full General Assembly, but lawmakers appear poised to see the spending plan sail through the legislature after one of the quickest and most straightforward budget markup sessions in years.

New in this budget is $25 million for students who come from impoverished areas or don’t speak English as a native language. Announced in January by Gov. John Carney, the original pitch would have equally allocated $60 million over three years to school districts, but the Joint Finance Committee this week opted to increase it to $75 million over three years.

The added $15 million will go solely to 49 high-needs elementary schools for mental health services.

“We’ve taken this step,” Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Jackson said Tuesday during JFC hearings. “How well did we perform, what level of increased proficiency in some of the core subject areas occurred, how did it affect school climate, how did it affect truancy, how did it affect other basic needs of kids who are being served with that?”

Also included in the budget is a $1,000 pay raise for most state workers. Teachers will get 2 percent hikes, while collectively bargained employees, such as correctional officers, will not be impacted.

Mike Jackson

The spending plan adds about $1.6 million more for basic special education for students in kindergarten or first, second or third grade, almost $1.3 million to expand the SEED scholarship program at Delaware Technical Community College and an additional $4.2 million more for caregivers of adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

But while several legislators touted the increased investment in caregivers, which now totals about $9 million over two years, advocates for and family members of Delawareans with disabilities say that falls well short of what they need.

Teesie Bonk, who for years was the primary caregiver for her brother Michael McNesby, who had Down syndrome, said it was “insulting” to see legislators ignore some of Delaware’s “most vulnerable” residents.

In June, lawmakers unanimously approved legislation stating the General Assembly intends to raise the rates for subsidized care for direct support professionals.

At the time, the cost to fund caregivers at 100 percent of the market rate established in a 2014 study was estimated at about $22.7 million over three years.

Since then, a new study has indicated the need is actually $42.1 million, nearly double what was previously thought.

Even with the $4.2 million in the next budget, caregivers would still make less than 70 percent of the market rate set in the latest analysis.

Wearing green shirts to show their membership in A-Team Delaware, a group that advocates for people with disabilities, a handful of attendees sat through JFC’s four days of meetings, hoping for the increase they feel was promised.

But, in the end, they left frustrated.

“I appreciate the money voted on today, but it’s just not enough. It’s just not enough,” said Ms. Bonk, whose brother was the namesake of the bill approved last year.

“I’m disappointed that the governor and the majority … of JFC don’t seem to understand the crisis families are facing with direct support professionals.”

Several legislators questioned why more money is not going to direct support professionals, only to be told by the committee co-chair they must also consider requests from a variety of groups, such as home health nurses and child care providers, and would have to explain why they chose only some causes to provide added funding to.

Lawmakers approved language in the budget requiring the Division of Developmental Disabilities Services to develop by July 31 a plan for fairly raising pay for all its providers.

“The goal is, let’s take a look at it, let’s get everybody moving forward together, because ultimately they’re really the same personnel,” said co-chair Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown.

“One decided to deal with children, one decided to deal with adult disabilities, some decided to deal with young disabilities, but they’re all not getting paid what they need to be able to stay in the field.”

He hopes to include increases for those various providers when JFC marks up the budget next year.

Much to the chagrin of several committee members, the budget also lacks any increases for pensioners. A few lawmakers raised the issue at the end of Wednesday’s meeting, arguing they should at least examine the idea of giving retirees more money.

“I just feel it’s disingenuous not to have even had a discussion here on it because the severity of what is needed” is so great, Rep. Stephanie Boldin, D-Wilmington, said.

Rep. Johnson responded that members were discussing the issue, and he noted afterward anyone could have made a motion to include increases in the budget.

Although the general operating budget is complete, lawmakers have yet to finalize the bond and the grant-in-aid bills, which fund capital projects and various nonprofits.

Those votes will be taken in the coming weeks.

Counting those two bills at the funding level the governor recommended in January — about $678.6 million for bond and $48.4 million for grant-in-aid — leaves around $120 million in unspent revenue.
That figure does not include the $45 million Gov. Carney urged legislators to set aside, adding to the $47 million deliberately left uncommitted in the current budget.

Mr. Jackson would like to add another $30 million or so to the unofficial reserve account, giving decision-makers approximately $120 million to tap into in the future should expenses surpass revenues, as is expected within the next few years.

Because revenue projections have shot up since Gov. Carney’s January proposal, lawmakers have plenty of money to use on construction projects, particularly infrastructure and state facilities.

“The main philosophy of this entire budget process is stability,” Rep. Johnson said after the hearing concluded.

“What can we do to make sure that what promises we’ve made through this budget process exist? … We will be faced with cuts or increases sooner or later, and it’s those days we’re trying to plan for.”

After an attempt to create a reserve account through legislation failed, Gov. Carney last year signed a nonbinding executive order seeking to limit budget growth to 3.8 percent.

Other items receiving funding in the budget or supplemental bill include assorted pet projects of legislators like economic development centers, the Kalmar Nyckel and a celebration of women’s suffrage, along with a host of new positions in state government.

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

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