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Delaware legislative panel finishes work on operating budget

By RANDALL CHASEMay 29, 2019

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Legislative budget writers finished marking up Democratic Gov. John Carney’s proposed operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year Wednesday by adding millions more for disabilities services, Medicaid dental care for adults and college scholarships for Delaware residents.

The Joint Finance Committee’s additions to the $4.4 billion spending plan Carney proposed in January total about $18.5 million, with education accounting for more than half the increase. With the additional money approved by the panel, the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 would be about 4.2% higher than this year’s budget, compared to an increase of about 3.8% proposed by Carney.

In addition to boosting the operating budget, the committee added about $23 million to a separate supplemental bill in which the Democratic governor called for about $39 million in one-time appropriations for various programs.

The committee had previously signed off on Carney’s proposed pay raises of $1,000 for most state employees and 2% for teachers, an increase of about $34 million to pay raises that government workers received this year.

But as the panel was preparing to adjourn, several members complained that it had not approved any cost-of-living increase for Delaware’s roughly 26,000 state government retirees.

“They have not been given any consideration this year,” said Rep. Stephanie Bolden, D-Wilmington.

Panel members also had a lengthy discussion about the need to increase payments to organizations providing services to disabled adults and other vulnerable and at-risk populations. While approving slight increases for some providers, the committee called for a comprehensive review of the several different methodologies currently used to establish provider rates. A report on the review’s findings would be due by April 1.

One of the biggest changes made by the committee was adding $15 million to the $60 million targeted by Carney over three years, starting next year, for low-income students and English language learners in public schools. Half of the “Opportunity Fund” money will be built into the operating budget, with the other half coming from one-time appropriations. All of the $15 million added by the committee is earmarked for mental health services for students in 49 “high need” elementary schools that qualify for reading interventionists under a separate block grant program.

Despite the additional funding, the committee appeared willing to heed Carney’s call for fiscal restraint despite revenue projections that have steadily increased over the past year. Carney has proposed adding about $45 million to an existing $47 million cushion of unspent funds that could help stabilize the state budget if revenue projections fall. That’s on top of the state’s constitutionally mandated “rainy day” fund, which totals about $250 million and is intended to be used only to address unanticipated budget deficits. It has never been tapped.

Lawmakers agreed to informally set aside the $47 million last year after Democratic lawmakers rejected Carney’s call for a “budget smoothing” constitutional amendment that would have required use of an index of economic indicators to limit year-over-year spending growth.

With the draft operating budget in place, and $45 million uncommitted for possible inclusion in the proposed “budget stabilization fund,” lawmakers are still looking at almost $120 million above and beyond what would be needed to fund Carney’s proposed capital budget of $678.6 million and proposed grants package of $48 million for nonprofit organizations, community groups and volunteer fire companies.

Budget director Michael Jackson said Thursday that he would be comfortable with a budget stabilization fund of about $125 million, which would still leave about $85 million for possible increases to the capital budget and grants package.

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