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Record capital budget adds to record operating budget

June 29, 2021 GMT

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Delaware lawmakers on Tuesday approved a whopping $1.3 billion capital budget for construction, transportation and economic development projects, almost double the current year’s budget.

The spending plan is $460 million more than the record $894.4 million capital budget that Democratic Gov. John Carney proposed in January. It also dwarfs this year’s $708 million capital budget.

The capital budget, commonly referred to as the “bond bill” because it authorizes borrowing for construction projects, received unanimous approval in the Senate and a single dissenting vote in the House.

With state revenue estimates having skyrocketed since last year’s overly pessimistic forecasts, lawmakers appropriated $692.3 million in general fund cash to the capital budget, more than double the $260.5 million in cash proposed by Carney.

“This record-setting bond bill will get Delawareans working,” said Rep. Debra Heffernan, a Wilmington Democrat and House co-chair of the joint capital budget committee.

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The budget, which now goes to Carney, includes $386 million for roads, bridges and other transportation projects, $229 million for school construction, $131 million for new Family Court facilities in Kent and Sussex counties, and $90 million for conservation and environmental projects. It includes hundreds of millions more for everything from prison and libraries to parks and economic development projects.

While supporting the budget, some GOP lawmakers expressed concern about the process for approving $70 million for pet projects requested by individual lawmakers through the “community redevelopment/reinvestment fund.”

“We have a bunch of cash, and so it goes to the bond (bill), and it becomes just a big pile of ‘come and grab it,’ for us 62 legislators in here for the projects that we care about in and around our districts,” said Republican Rep. Jeffrey Spiegelman of Clayton. “I’m not sure that’s necessarily the healthiest way of doing this.... I think, structurally, we’re just not set up to handle a flush of cash like we have now in a way that is more of a fiscally responsible manner.”

Rep. Lyndon Yearick, a Magnolia Republican, was the only lawmaker to vote against the budget.

“There’s no doubt that everybody in this body is going to benefit from this bill, present company included.... We’ve given back zero to Delaware taxpayers in any tax relief,” said Yearick, who noted that lawmakers also tacked on an additional $221 million in one-time spending for various projects in the state’s operating budget for next year.

“One person’s pork is another person’s stimulus,” he said, adding that many Delawareans who lost their jobs or saw their businesses closed last year because of the pandemic are still suffering.

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Before addressing the capital budget, lawmakers last week approved a record-high $4.77 billion general fund operating budget for the fiscal year starting Thursday. That represents an increase of almost 5% over the current year’s budget and roughly $65 million more than what Carney had recommended. The $221 million “supplemental” budget bill for one-time expenditures brings the increase over the current year’s $4.5 billion operating budget to more than 10%.

Despite the significant increase in spending, lawmakers were able to set aside almost $223 million to add to a reserve fund that Carney created for budget planning purposes in 2018, bringing the current balance to $286 million. The reserve fund is separate from Delaware’s $252 million “rainy day” fund, which has never been tapped.