Markell signs Delaware budget

The last night of Delaware’s legislative session lacked some of the late-night drama seen in recent years.

That’s because members of the House and Senate went into the marathon final day having already passed the spending plan. The only drama in the closing weeks and days of the session was seeing how lawmakers would choose to spend more than $325 million in unexpected gains in state revenues.

Those questions were officially answered at 2:35 Friday morning when Gov. Jack Markell signed into law a $3.5 billion general fund operating budget, a $664 million capital budget, and a $41.2 million grant-in-aid bill. 

The capital budget — used for state building projects such as roads, schools and other infrastructure — is about $244 million more than Markell proposed in January.

The $41.2 million in grant-in-aid money will go to local groups such as community service organizations, senior centers and volunteer fire departments.

“I think the most important accomplishment in this session was maintaining our focus on the economy,” Markell said. “It’s a budget and Bond Bill that invest in our future.”

The 2012 budget, which goes into effect today, is an increase of more than 6 percent over the 2011 budget.

Some of the highlights, according to Markell’s administration, include investments in infrastructure and higher education projects to create jobs; tax cuts for individuals and businesses; pension and health reform for state workers that will save taxpayers more than $480 million over the next 15 years; and a $22 million investment to improve early childhood education.

“The (spending plan) recognizes the critical role that education plays in economic development,” Markell said. “And it makes clear the benefits of kids arriving for the very first day of school ready to succeed.”

Some lawmakers, however, would have liked to have seen a little more fiscal restraint, particularly in an unpredictable economy.

“When you look at Delaware’s true economic indicators — GDP, employment, things like that — it’s still very weak,” said House Minority Leader Greg Lavelle (R-Sharpley). “There’s no requirement that we spend every dime, and we did spend every dime. I hope we don’t regret that next year.”

Lavelle also criticized a $55 million chunk of the capital budget called the “New Jobs Infrastructure Fund.”

“There’s no transparency, there’s no reporting requirement, there’s no process,” he said. “This is $55 million and we’ve just said, ‘here, have it, do with it what you want.'”

Lavelle did say there was one thing he was happy about: “I’m happy it’s over.”

Considering only two of the 21 Senators voted against the grant-in-aid bill, there was a lot of talk about ways to improve the process.

At one point during the Senate floor debate, Sen. Colin Bonini (R-Dover South) asked Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Harris McDowell (D-Wilmington North) if he thought a 20 percent increase in spending over the previous year was too much.

Bonini: “A 20 percent increase? I mean, do we think that’s fiscally responsible?”

McDowell: “Yes.”

Bonini went on to say, “I’m just really disappointed that as soon as we get the money we just start throwing it around. I just think we can do better than that.”

To which McDowell replied, “Here’s how we’ve been throwing money around the last four years. We cut 8 percent three years ago. We cut 20 percent two years ago and we cut 10 percent last year. So this year we added 20 percent, that makes us still considerably behind.”

Sen. Joseph Booth (R-Georgetown) requested that the Joint Finance Committee look into the process.

“We can change how it’s done, make it more efficient, and make it better than it is today,” he said.

On the final legislative night of the year, lawmakers also gave approval to a redistricting plan that redraws state Senate and House district lines.

The once-a-decade bill approved by the Senate on Thursday was drafted by Democrats who control both chambers and has been criticized by Republicans as gerrymandering.

It closes two House districts in northern Delaware represented by Republicans and creates two new ones in central and southern Delaware. It also merges two Senate districts in the north, creating a new one in the south.

The bill takes into account a southward shift in the state’s population, but it also preserves four majority black House districts in and around the city of Wilmington, even though the city lost population over the past decade. It also preserves two majority black Senate districts in and around Wilmington.

Passage of the redistricting and budget bills capped a six-month session in which lawmakers passed groundbreaking legislation allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions and legalizing medical marijuana.

Among the other bills approved in the final hours of the session were measures that toughen drunken driving laws while offering repeat offenders treatment and counseling, prohibit possession of a firearm in a public place while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and allow motorcyclists to ride without having to carry a helmet with them.

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