From the Hall: Legislators entertain funding requests from state government departments

DOVER — Budget hearings continue Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday after legislators spent three days last week listening to officials from the University of Delaware, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of State and several other agencies or organizations that receive state funding.

Set to appear before the Joint Finance Committee Tuesday is Auditor Kathy McGuiness, who was sworn in Jan. 1, and officials from the Department of Correction.

Kathy McGuiness

With the deadly February 2017 inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center still fresh in everyone’s minds — a trial for several inmates accused of killing a correctional officer during the incident is ongoing — lawmakers will likely have plenty of questions ready for the agency. One recent development that could be touched on by JFC is the recent reassignment of Bureau Chief of Prisons Steven Wesley, who the agency revealed last week will be moving to the Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families, taking a pay cut in the process.

Wednesday, JFC will hear from Delaware State University, the Department of Insurance, the Department of Labor and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Thursday is devoted entirely to the Department of Education, perhaps the most scrutinized state agency.

Public education makes up more than one-third of the state budget, with the governor’s $4.43 billion recommended budget allocating $1.56 billion for the agency. Just over $1.46 billion of that education funding is earmarked for districts and charter schools.

Voting machines

Last week saw the Department of Elections come before JFC, with Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove demonstrating one of the new voting machines officials plan to have in place for school board elections in May.

A legislative committee in September approved the purchase of about 1,500 ExpressVote XL machines to replace the state’s Danaher ELECTronic 1242s, which have been in use since 1995. Made by Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software, the new machines have a voter-verifiable paper trail, meaning voters can ensure their machine records selections accurately. Delaware was one of five states lacking such a trail.

The state allocated $10 million for the purchase and received another $3 million from the federal government.

“I don’t think it’s going to be hard for Delaware voters when they come in. It looks like what they’ve seen for forever,” Ms. Manlove told JFC members as several legislators cast mock ballots.

Because the ExpressVote XLs have features the old machines lack, Delawareans might be able to cast a ballot from anywhere in the state in the future, something that would benefit those who work in a different location than where they live and might have trouble making it to their designated polling place. Such a change, however, is still hypothetical and wouldn’t be put in place just yet, Ms. Manlove said.

The state’s purchase also includes a new electronic pollbook to allow election workers to check in voters online rather than using a printed list of names. The pollbooks will be connected to the internet but, to prevent hackers from interfering in an election, the machines will not be.

Lawmakers appeared pleased with the selection, although some advocates have argued for paper ballots instead.

During the Department of Elections’ budget hearing, Jennifer Hill, a lobbyist for the good government group Common Cause Delaware, objected to the purchase, noting the department has asked for another $5 million over the next four years for the machines.

However, Ms. Manlove disputed the claim that the price tag is much bigger than anticipated, saying the costs for maintenance and the software license should only total about $100,000 a year more than the state currently pays.

The selection committee unanimously agreed Election Systems & Software’s bid was the best option, she said.

Treasurer makes a funny

Responding to a crack made earlier in the day Thursday by Rep. Earl Jaques, Treasurer Colleen Davis made a joke at her own expense when she appeared before JFC.

During a morning budget briefing, Rep. Jaques, who represents the Glasgow area, noted there is no money in the spending plan for a chauffeur for Ms. Davis, who has had her license suspended several times, most recently just a week after winning election in November.

When it was time for her to detail the functions and budget needs of her office, Ms. Davis — who presumably knew about Rep. Jaques’ remark because of a tweet from a reporter who heard the joke — quipped she had sped to get to Legislative Hall and perfected her driving during her time operating an ambulance.

Both politicians are Democrats, and while there’s no word on whether Ms. Davis or other Democratic officials were amused by the comment, it’s a safe bet there was some behind-the-scenes backlash given that she referenced the joke in the first place.

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