As coronavirus-adjusted budget passes state Senate, Del. lawmakers clash over spending bills

Delaware senators gave near-unanimous support to the $4.55 billion budget, but debate on two other spending bills proved much more contentious.

The Delaware Capitol building, Dover, De.

The Delaware State House in Dover. (Tom Byrne/Delaware Public Media)

The state’s $4.55 billion budget bill passed the Senate smoothly Tuesday in a 20-to-1 vote. The state House followed suit Wednesday and approved the budget in a 40-to-1 vote.

As usual, Republican state Sen. Colin Bonini was the only vote against the bill

But the Senate vote on two other major spending bills was far from smooth. The grant-in-aid bill, which funds nonprofit organizations, and the bond bill, which funds construction projects statewide, were both defeated in the Senate Tuesday.

A group of seven Republicans refused to vote on the more than $700 million bond bill, claiming they were not given enough time to review it. The $54 million grant-in-aid bill suffered the same fate with nine “no” votes. Both bills require approval from three-fourths of the senate.

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“This being an extraordinary time, I know that we’re having to make some adjustments to some of the things that we do, but the transparency and the openness of our process should never take a backseat to expediency,” said state Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, a Republican.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore, a Democrat, rebuked those who didn’t vote, calling it cynical partisanship and Washington, D.C.-style politics.

“I have to say that Delaware, they need us to show up. Not to vote a bill down that will absolutely protect the health of Delawareans, including the most vulnerable people that are among us, who depend on us to provide the services through this legislation,” she said. “To see this happen today, it’s completely wrong.”

Other GOP senators said their decision not to vote on the bills Tuesday night does not mean they don’t support the legislation or the nonprofits it would fund.

“To sit here and say that we should have known what was in that is totally wrong. Yes, we will support it, but we also want to read it and let our constituents know what’s in it,” said state Sen. Gerald Hocker, who leads Republicans in the Senate. “We care about our constituents. We care about the people that put us there. We care about our voters, and they don’t expect me to go up and vote on anything that I haven’t seen.”

The Senate only has two more days of meetings scheduled before the end of the legislative session on June 30.

The spending bill is 2.1% higher than the current budget. Gov. John Carney’s proposed budget earlier this year, before the economy dropped due to the coronavirus shutdown, would have grown 4%.

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Despite the decline, the budget doesn’t include program cuts or reductions in state service. It also includes $63 million in funding for the Budget Stabilization Fund, which is an extra reserve account the state can tap in times of economic trouble.

State Sen. Harris McDowell, a Wilmington Democrat who has been in the General Assembly since 1976, said the economic challenge made this “one of the more difficult years in my tenure as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee.”

The measure also provides full funding for public schools, including an extra $27.7 million for expected growth in school enrollment.

“I am confident, however, that this operating budget is the best spending plan we could put forward given the tremendous uncertainty in our revenue projections,” he said.

The bill now moves to the House for final consideration. Lawmakers are required by law to approve a balanced budget by June 30.

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