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Delaware operating budget for next year gets final approval

June 24, 2021 GMT

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Senate lawmakers on Thursday gave final approval to 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.

The Senate voted 20-to-1 for a $4.77 billion general fund operating budget for fiscal 2022. That represents an increase of almost 5% over the current year’s budget and roughly $65 million more than what Carney had recommended.

Senators 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%.

House members had signed off on the plan on Wednesday.

“This is a responsible, sustainable financial plan that protects taxpayer dollars and invests in the future of our state,” Carney said in a prepared statement.

With state revenue estimates having skyrocketed since last year’s overly pessimistic forecasts, 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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“We would have liked to built some more things into the budget,” said Sen. Trey Paradee, a Dover Democrat who co-chairs the budget-writing committee, noting that analysts expect a decline in revenues next year.

The budget bill 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.

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.

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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.

Looking ahead, lawmakers also set 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.

Even with the substantial additions to Carney’s recommended budget, lawmakers were still left with hundreds of million dollars 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.

Despite the spending increases, lawmakers added $223 million 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.

“That gives us a lot cushion,” Paradee said.