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Delaware House approves budget bill for upcoming fiscal year

June 23, 2021 GMT

DOVER, Del. (AP) — House lawmakers on Wednesday approved a spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 that adds hundreds of millions of dollars to the budget that Democratic Gov. John Carney proposed in January.

House members voted 38-1, with two abstentions, for a $4.77 billion general fund operating budget for fiscal 2022. That is an increase of almost 5% over the current year’s budget and roughly $65 million more than what Carney ad recommended.

House members also voted unanimously for a “supplemental” budget bill of one-time expenditures that brings the increase over the current year’s $4.5 billion operating budget to more than 10%.

With state revenue estimates having skyrocketed since January, lawmakers included more than $221 million in one-time funds for a variety of expenditures next year. Carney had recommended only $35.7 million for one-time expenditures.

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The budget bill, which now goes to the Senate, includes $22.7 million for across-the-board pay raises of $500 or 1%, whichever is higher, for state employees. Lawmakers used the supplemental bill to pad those pay raises, allocating $54.6 million for one-time bonuses of $1,000 for government workers. They also approved almost $15.3 million for $500 bonuses to government retirees.

Carney had recommended $30 million in one-time funding for pandemic contingencies, but lawmakers eliminated that supplemental line-item in favor of other one-time expenditures. They include $20 million for state employee health insurance costs and $5 million for a loan program that helps volunteer fire companies upgrade equipment and improve facilities.

The spending plan also includes:

— $22 million in additional funding for “disadvantaged students,” a term that encompasses low-income students, students whose first language is not English, and students with disabilities

— $17.2 million to increase reimbursement rates for support professionals who work with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities

— $16 million for student mental health services, including the placement of a mental health professional in every public elementary school

— $10.2 million for efforts to improve academic performance of students in public schools in Wilmington and northern New Castle County.

— $5.2 million to implement a statewide body-worn camera program for police officers.

The additional funding for disadvantaged students is part of Delaware’s obligations under the settlement of a school funding lawsuit brought by the ACLU and Community Legal Aid Society. The settlement required Carney to seek significantly higher funding from the legislature for disadvantaged students over the next several years. He also was required to propose legislation to make funding for disadvantaged students a permanent fixture in the state budget. A bill doing so is awaiting Carney’s signature.

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“This budget demonstrates a strong commitment to improving public education in Delaware and targeting underserved students and those with special needs, and supporting the educators who are dedicated to helping them shape their futures,” said Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, a member of the budget-writing committee and chair of the House Education Committee.

Looking ahead, legislative budget writers also recommended setting aside $72.7 million for an extra paycheck that state employees are slated to receive in fiscal 2023 because of a once-every-decade 27th pay cycle.

“It’s going to make next year easier,” state finance secretary Rick Geisenberger said in an interview last week. “I think it’s being very fiscally responsible to set it aside now, in a good year, while you can.”

Delaware’s official revenue estimates, and resulting government spending capacity, have grown significantly since the passage of last year’s budget during the height of the coronavirus epidemic and since Carney issued his budget proposal. Official estimates left lawmakers with some $1.3 billion more revenue available for next fiscal year compared to the current year. Much of that growth is due to substantial increases in estimates for personal income tax and corporate franchise tax revenue.

“We were far more pessimistic last June than we are today,” Geisenberger said.

Even with the substantial additions to Carney’s recommended budget, lawmakers still have hundreds of million dollars available to spend next year. A significant chunk of that money will likely be added to the record-high $894 million capital budget that Carney requested in January. The legislature’s capital budget committee, which is meeting this week, has already added millions of dollars to Carney’s proposal.

Despite the spending increases, lawmakers are keeping expenditures to no more than 98% of estimated available revenue, as required by the state constitution. They also are maintaining Delaware’s never-tapped “rainy day” fund, which currently totals $252 million, and are expected to add to the $63 million current balance in a separate reserve fund that Carney created for budget planning purposes in 2018.