Carney signs $4.45 billion operating budget

DOVER — Gov. John Carney on Tuesday signed into law the $4.45 billion operating budget, along with a $62 million supplement, for the fiscal year starting July 1.

It is the earliest the budget has been approved in 16 years.
As June 30, the final regularly scheduled legislative day of 2019 draws near, lawmakers still have to finish the other two “money” bills.

Both the capital bond bill and the grant-in-aid measure, which provides funding for nonprofits, are still being finalized and may not be voted on until Sunday.

But the end is in sight, and the state now has what Gov. Carney, a Democrat, called a “responsible and sustainable” spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

The budget marks a 4.2 percent hike over the current year’s $4.27 billion general spending plan. Counting the supplements for the present and upcoming years, the state will be spending about $190 million more in operating expenses starting July 1.

The governor in January proposed a budget totaling $4.43 billion, with a $39 million addition in the form of a separate bill. Revenue projections have ticked up since then, however, resulting in lawmakers having an extra $320 million or so to play with. That money has been divided between the operating budget, the bond bill and an unofficial reserve account, and some may also get allocated to the grant-in-aid legislation.

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Sen. Colin Bonini

The Senate approved the budget 20-1 Tuesday after the House passed it unanimously Thursday. The supplement passed unanimously in both chambers.

“This is a budget all Delawareans can be proud of,” Sen. Harris McDowell, a Wilmington Democrat who co-chairs the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, said in a statement. “HB 225 provides education funding to students who need it the most, adds reading interventionists and school counselors to schools throughout the state, expands access to college for hundreds of Delaware families, improves care for people with disabilities, gives raises to our hard-working state employees and puts aside money for the future.”

State workers will receive an identical pay raise to the one they earned this year, with most employees getting $1,000 more. Teachers will see 2 percent bumps in their paychecks.

This is the second consecutive year the spending plan has been spread across two bills.

The use of a supplement for the fiscal year ending June 30 enabled the administration to boast it was growing the operating budget by less than 4 percent (3.99 percent, to be exact), although combined spending from the budget and the supplement meant the state spent 5.2 percent more than the prior fiscal year.

The division continued this year, in large part to allow the state to distribute millions for needy students without growing the base budget too much.

The supplement for the upcoming fiscal year includes $37.5 million for students who come from impoverished areas and don’t speak English as a native language, part of $75 million officials plan to spend over three years to help those often-ignored populations and to give elementary schoolers more mental health and reading support.

The goal is to ensure the state is spending money wisely rather than just tossing dollars into unproven programs year after year, Gov. Carney explained.

“I think it sends the right signal and engages legislators in the enterprise of not just forgetting about it, building it into the base and then going into the next increment,” he told reporters after signing the bills. “It says it’s not an increment built into the base.

“Let’s evaluate it and make decisions from there. The whole idea is to, in the long term, have a budget that’s sustainable.”

The spending plan also will expand special education services, raise the rates paid to caregivers of adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, offer dental care to low-income families, add reading specialists to high-need schools, grow the SEED scholarship program to include some University of Delaware attendees and fund early learning centers.

“We can all be proud of those investments that we make, because the future of our state, its economy and its communities and the wonderful place that we love here, depends on that next generation, and I don’t think there’s been a General Assembly that’s made these kind of thoughtful investments in education and in such a way that we intend to build on them,” Gov. Carney said.

Thanks to the extra revenue, this year’s budget process has been relatively smooth, a stark contrast to 2017. That year saw legislators fail to approve a budget by the July 1 deadline and have to return after that date for the first time in 40 years.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have praised the governor’s push to hold millions in reserve, with the intent of using it when expenditures surpass revenues, as is anticipated to happen in the next few years.

Even Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican who boasts of having never voted for the budget, had kind words for the executive branch and the Joint Finance Committee, praising them for demonstrating fiscal “discipline.” (He still voted against the spending plan, however.)
Legislators will meet again today and Thursday before convening for the final time Sunday.

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