Amid disagreement, lawmakers reduce funding for some programs, threaten to cut more

DOVER — At Tuesday’s Joint Finance Committee meeting lawmakers made dozens of minor cuts, slashing about $30 million from the state budget, with only eight of the cuts totaling more than $1 million.

Among the votes Tuesday were decisions to eliminate the State Board of Education, lower the funding for 15 health-related programs by 20 percent and defund administrative costs for the medical marijuana program.

Lawmakers expressed displeasure with many of the proposals, although almost every single modification to the budget was ultimately approved.

Budget-writing legislators are scheduled to meet for two more days this week, after which they may have eliminated a shortfall between projected revenue and spending of around $390 million.
About $200 million currently remains, but lawmakers may wait to balance the budget until an updated revenue fore-cast is issued June 19.

Legislators could also undo cuts if Republicans and Democrats come to a consensus on tax hikes in the ensuing weeks. For now, however, the budget is shrouded in uncertainty, and JFC is left waiting as leadership discusses possible tax increases.

Committee co-chair Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, who was aiming to have the budget finished by the time markup finishes this week, expressed uncertainty about that prospect after Tuesday’s meeting.

“Do you risk making all the cuts now or do you not do the cuts and then run the risk of June, not having a balanced budget?” she said.

Her co-chair, Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, the most frequent objector to cuts Tuesday, said he was frustrated with the number of spending reductions.

“We need to hold some of our colleagues’ feet to the fire,” he said of the failure to find agreement on revenue generators. “We can’t tell them what they have to do but we can tell them to make up their mind and do it one way or the other so that we know and don’t have to go through these kind of exercises. This gets worse as we go along.”

The much-maligned cuts could also be a way to force Republicans to the negotiating table, something officials appeared to hint at Tuesday. How well it works remains to be seen.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Jackson said the administration of Gov. John Carney has questions about some of the cuts made Tuesday by JFC. Lawmakers previously slashed $51 million based on proposals from Gov. Carney, but Tuesday’s cuts, Mr. Jackson said, could have reverberations throughout the state.

Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, said lawmakers were “hurting some of our most vulnerable people,” and Sen. McDowell questioned reducing money going to drug prevention programs when the state is in the middle of a heroin “epidemic.”

The list of cuts stems from recommendations made by lawmakers, according to Rep. George Smith.

Though lawmakers believe they can remove the Board of Education with epilogue language in this year’s budget bill, they may have to pass separate legislation to eliminate the group. The board has several responsibilities, including giving assistance to the secretary of education on policy and budgeting.

The Joint Legislative Oversight and Sunset Committee reviewed the group in March and recommended some changes in the interest of transparency, but members pointedly chose not to get rid of the board.

Tuesday saw JFC postpone a vote on creating a fee for driver’s education for students in private schools, the only topic on the long list of potential cuts that was not approved.

Rep. George Smith and Sen. McDowell disagreed on several occasions, a rare occurrence that could indicate some frustration and division among Democrats.

Republicans were slower to object to cuts, with Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, stating he was primarily concerned with “placat(ing) the taxpayers.”

“What you do today you can always undo tomorrow,” Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, noted.

Sen. McDowell said the budget still contains some potential cuts that “are less harmful to people,” alt-hough he declined to say what those are.

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