Delaware House passes remaining budget bills

Delaware State News | by Matt Bittle

The state House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the capital bond bill and a nonprofit funding measure Monday, setting the General Assembly up for what will hopefully be a quick and easy conclusion to its session today.

The chamber passed the grant-in-aid measure 41-0 and the bond bill 40-1, with Rep. John Kowalko, a Newark Democrat, as the only holdout.

Both measures were approved by the Senate last week. The two chambers previously passed the operating budget.

Legislators will wrap up their session tonight, meeting virtually as they have been for a month. The House and Senate will go in late — 10:30 for the Senate and 11:45 for the House as of late afternoon Monday — and gavel out past midnight as a procedural move.

Whatever legislation members work on, it should be relatively brief and straightforward.

After today, the chambers are not scheduled to convene until January, when a new General Assembly begins.

Because of COVID-19, the General Assembly has gathered in person for only about 20% of the scheduled days, and Legislative Hall has been closed since the middle of March. As a result, 2020 has been a more bare-bones session, with lawmakers focusing on the money bills and a few other assorted subjects in June as opposed to the usual whirlwind of activity.

Two of the spending bills mark decreases from the current fiscal year. The third, the operating budget, has growth only in “door openers” — areas the state is obligated to fund — such as Medicaid and increased school enrollment, according to officials.

At $708 million, the capital budget represents a decrease of $155 million (18%) from the current fiscal year. Grant-in-aid is about $54.5 million, a very slight decrease from the current $55 million allocation.

The operating budget totals $4.52 billion, a jump of 1.6%. That sum is the largest in state history, but down from the $4.64 billion proposed by the governor in January.

Coronavirus is responsible for that drop, with the state’s revenues for this fiscal year and the next one plummeting by about $530 million from January to June. The downturn forced lawmakers to make some cuts and reach into other accounts to balance the budget.

Among the highlights are a scheduled pay raise for many state employees, such as educators, police officers and deputy attorneys general, that was cut from the budget to save money, but then restored after a positive revenue forecast.

Lawmakers noted that they did not cut services, slash employee pay or hours or raise health care premiums as was done during the Great Recession.

“We do have a budget system that works,” said Rep. Quinn Johnson, a Middletown Democrat who co-chairs the budget-writing committee. “Keep doing it.”

The only opposition to the bond bill came from Rep. Kowalko, who took exception to the inclusion of $14.25 million used to award grants to companies.

“I will not let my taxpayers suffer this endless circle of stopping once at the tollbooth, giving money to the toll to continue on our way around the circle again to come back to the tollbooth again to put the money in the richest corporations’ pockets,” he said, adding that Delaware “is built on this corporate welfare thing.”

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