As this year’s General Assembly session nears end, education and the state budget remain in forefront

 

DOVER — Hard as it may seem to believe for some, the General Assembly is two-thirds of the way through its year. Thirty-three of the 45 legislative days are in the rear-view mirror, and as lawmakers prepare for the two-week break for budget markup, some things are settled, but uncertainties remain.

In at least one way, the situation this year is more stable than last year’s, however.

In mid-May of 2015, revenue projections had declined about $39 million since September, and Democrats and Republicans remained at an impasse regarding higher Division of Motor Vehicles fees that would pay for new infrastructure projects.

That stalemate lasted until the final hours of session, and the pieces did not fall into place until the very early morning hours of July 1.

In the second leg of the current session, the situation appears for now to be a little smoother, though one high-ranking lawmaker cautioned that plenty of challenges still remain.

“We have a shortfall and we have millions of dollars’ worth of projects that people want, so obviously when we break we go to markup and they’ll be trying to move money around to figure out which projects we can support, which ones we won’t support,” Speaker of the House Peter Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said.

“They’ll look at where we can trim the budget to try to make a balanced budget, but bottom line is we have to balance the budget.”

Wile two more revenue projections are due before the fiscal year ends June 30, some lawmakers are concerned Monday’s estimate will go in the wrong direction, meaning the existing budget gap could balloon.

Should revenue fail to see an uptick, lawmakers would have essentially two options: cut some services and programs or increase taxes in some form.

While legislators did consider raising some taxes on big corporations last year, steadfast Republican refusal and the prospect of an upcoming election means the chance of a tax hike of any sort is very slim at best, unless the bottom falls out in regard to the budget.

Education funding

A number of education-related proposals, such as Wilmington redistricting, increased special-education funding and new after-school programs sit on the table, but Minority Leader Sen. F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, believes most of those ideas will not pass due to the added cost they would entail.

As bleak a picture as some legislators may paint, everything will come together. Lawmakers balanced the budget last year, as they are required to do, making minor cuts, dipping into a pot of one-time money and finding funds.

As the Joint Finance Committee meets over the next two weeks to craft the budget, there will undoubtedly be both angst and thinly veiled threats of cuts to programs or service, the metaphorical “stick” to convince reluctant legislators and officials to compromise.

Legislative Hall is “not going to be a fun place” during those hearings, Rep. Schwartzkopf.

June is always a busy month, perhaps especially so in even-numbered years, when the sessions ends after June 30 and some lawmakers inevitably retire or fail to be re-elected.

Though the budget is issue No. 1, every lawmaker has their own list of priorities. Some want to see a revamp of the Wilmington schools, or casino relief, or a minimum wage increase, or tax breaks, or tax hikes or …

A resolution approving the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission’s plans for redistricting the schools in Delaware’s largest city was released from committee in the House Wednesday, but a rough road remains. Even the official committee report on the General Assembly’s website states the bill was “hesitantly” sent to the full chamber.

Several Republicans have made clear their objections about the price tag, which would hit $30 million in the first two years after the change, according to the WEIC report. Other lawmakers have also pushed for added funding for poorer downstate school districts.

Calling the WEIC proposal “the biggest thing that’s hanging out there right now,” Sen. Simpson expressed uncertainty following the plan would help fix Wilmington’s struggling school system.

“It’s a lot of money and I don’t think a lot of people are convinced that spending more money is going to solve the problem,” he said.

Changing odds

Outside of education, several business-related bills wait in limbo.

Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, has been perhaps the strongest advocate for granting some form of relief to Delaware’s casinos. He said in April he thought lawmakers “may very well be able to address the casino issue in some way,” but Sen. Simpson took a different stance last week.

“Unless there’s a lot of money that’s freed up in the next month I don’t realistically think that they’ll be changing the tax structure,” he said.

That is in line with Rep. Schwartzkopf’s comments on the sheer number of bills that would come at a cost to the state. Some proposals that would likely pass during a budget surplus will fail this year, and even the ones that do gain sizable support may be scaled back.

One of this session’s most controversial proposals is a bill to increase the minimum wage by $2 in four 50-cent increments. The legislation passed the Senate but now appears stalled in a House committee.

Main sponsor Rep. Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington, admitted after an unsuccessful March committee hearing the proposal was likely dead.

Another labor-related bill with both strong support and vocal opposition is one that would essentially allow unions to set terms on government projects.

The proposal was approved by a House panel in March, even as the main sponsor conceded there were changes that would have to be made to it.

While 27 of 37 Democrats in the General Assembly have signed on as sponsors, there is significant and vocal opposition from the Republican side of the aisle, as well as non-union laborers.

Rep. Schwartzkopf, who is not a co-sponsor, said attorneys have questions about the constitutionality of the measure.

Main sponsor Rep. Michael Mulrooney, D-Wilmington Manor, said last month he was working to amend it to ameliorate concerns and intended to have it heard on the floor at some point.

A not-yet-filed proposal to raise the state’s gas tax by 10 cents for one year remains unlikely to even be introduced, Rep. Mulrooney said.

Other goals come from the other side of the aisle.

Republicans, who have objected to the constitutionality of a March JFC vote allocating for various initiatives $28.3 million in bank settlement funds, would like to continue to press the issue.

The problem for them, however, is few, if any, avenues remain after a resolution asking for a Supreme Court opinion on the matter was defeated last month.

Minority Whip Sen. Gregory Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said after the vote on the resolution that Republicans may vote against the budget, but Sen. Simpson said they “might want to hold that threat for something else” instead.

Members of the Senate minority will also persist in pushing several ideas they have aimed at combating poverty, including a bill to double a housing-related tax credit from $500,000 to $1 million.

That measure is stuck in committee, but Sen. Simpson said he remains hopeful it will pass.

According to Sen. Simpson, there is “not as much friction” between the different caucuses this year in comparison to 2015. Infrastructure negotiations that began early in the session and were not resolved until the final hours of the last regularly scheduled legislative day drove a wedge between lawmakers of opposing parties at times last year.

The budget was not finalized in 2015 until the final hours of session.

This year, Rep. Schwartzkopf said, should be different, even as he cautioned the remainder of session could still be problematic.

“It’s priority for me from January through June, but it becomes priority for everybody else starting in June,” he said of the budget.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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