Committee approves Delaware budget bill with big cuts for schools, nonprofits

(File/WHYY)

(File/WHYY)

Just two days before the deadline to set a budget, the state of Delaware has released a budget bill that makes millions of dollars in cuts in areas including education and grants to nonprofits.

On Wednesday, the Joint Finance Committee balanced the budget by making $88 million in cuts.

“None of these decisions were made lightly,” said JFC chair state Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear. “We were not happy with most of the cuts we had to make, but the end result is we have a balanced budget.”

One of the largest slashes is about $37 million from education, part of which could be offset if districts decide to raise property taxes, something they could do without a referendum. There’s also an elimination of the entire Grants-in-Aid bill, which funds items like paramedics and fire, senior centers and other nonprofits.

The cuts come after an agreement could not be made between Democrats, who wanted to raise taxes to avoid such cuts, and Republicans, who rejected tax hikes. Republicans have asked for a three-year moratorium on the prevailing wage and new spending limits. 

JFC members said cutting Grant-in-Aid was the most difficult decision.

“We have put all of our communities in jeopardy, because our fire service, our EMTs, those folks that serve us well, are going to have to figure out how they are going to continue to serve us,” said Nicole Poore, D-New Castle.

“The nonprofits in which we support take a large burden off the state of Delaware, they do some of our heavy lifting, and yes, we do support them financially, but they also are not seeking their own funds, they’re out there making sure our mental health folks get the help they need, our schools get the help they need, our fire services, our EMTs, protect our families on a daily basis, so for that part it has absolutely rocked me to our core that upstairs we couldn’t figure out a way to find the funding we needed,” Poore said.

State Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna, also voiced concern as he told a story about meeting a 90-year-old World War II veteran while volunteering for Meals on Wheels who told him it’s the most decent meal he has.

“By not having Grant-in-Aid for these people it’s like throwing heroes away,” he said.

State Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, said he hopes the JFC will meet again to address the issue of Grant-in-Aid.

The education cuts followed Gov. John Carney’s proposals.

The state would cut 1.5 percent of funding to school districts for their operating budgets, saving about $15 million. The districts could choose where those cuts would be made.

The state also would eliminate the Educational Sustainment Fund, which is like a flexible spending account, saving $21.9 million. The districts could offset that cost by raising property taxes without a referendum.

“This is going to change the ratio of funding between the state and local schools. The percent of state support for schools has clearly declined [over the years], but it’s been a natural process, and this is the first time I’ve heard the governor say, ‘I think there should be a different ratio,’ that the state share is too high,” said state Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Central Kent.

“By making that statement clear I think it helps kick off a good robust public discussion of that very issue. There are some people who think the ratio now is not a bad ratio. There are others who think local school districts should pick up more of the costs. There’s a lot of things we’re going to have to do that we don’t want to do, this is one of them for me.”

There’s also $5 million in cuts to Medicaid, but the state said it won’t directly affect individuals on Medicaid currently. The Secretary of Health would make adjustments and work with managed care organizations to reduce costs on a monthly basis.

Sussex County also would have to pay for state troopers assigned there, saving the state $2.1 million.

JFC chair state Rep. Melanie Smith said while some legislators wanted the committee to wait until a deal was made, they needed to get a bill out to give legislators time to review it before the June 30th deadline.

Republicans drafted legislation that would fund the Delaware state government through the month of July, in the event that no budget deal is reached by July 1st. However, Democrats were adamant that a budget would be met by the deadline.

Smith said she hopes to introduce the bill early Thursday.

“[The bill is] responsible in that it meets all the obligations of the citizens of Delaware, but at the same time respects the constitutional requirement we have to have a balanced budget. So, we’re not deficit spending, we’re not pushing things off hoping sometime next year there will be an agreement, there will be more revenue, we’re doing what’s responsible, once this budget bill passes the people can count on all their services—the police officers, the correctional officers, our teachers—state government will continue to function,” Smith said.

“As difficult as this has been, this is a responsible budget and it took a lot of difficult decisions from the members of the Joint Finance Committee to get us here, but I think ultimately we can respect the fact we’ve met our constitutional obligation to have a balanced budget using only 98 percent of projected revenues.”

Following the meeting Democrats blamed Republicans for the difficult cuts. 

“This is the bed our Republican colleagues have made for our state. After weeks of moving the goalposts in our budget negotiations and skipping meetings entirely in favor of press releases and press conferences, they now seem giddy that they’ve forced the Joint Finance Committee to make painful cuts to programs on which Delawareans rely. Three weeks ago, the Republicans issued a manifesto of demands to the press, and we have already agreed to the vast majority of them. But now our Republican colleagues have shifted from negotiating to dictating that we inflict further pain on our most vulnerable residents – our seniors, our school children, our veterans and those who count on the essential services provided by non-profits,” said Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk’s Nest, in a statement.

“Unlike my Republican colleagues, who want to put off difficult political decisions with a continuing resolution, I intend to do everything possible to ensure we have a balanced budget, as is constitutionally required, by the end of session on June 30. I then intend to help hold Republicans accountable for the pain inflicted on the Delawareans who elected us to do a job their party has abandoned.”

Republicans responded by arguing cuts could have been made in various other areas that won’t affect Delawareans so harshly.

“Today, the Democrats demonstrated where their values lie. They have declared that they value union campaign checks and unsustainable spending over the most needy in Delaware. The idea that they would use our nonprofits as a tool in budget negotiations is mean-spirited and pathetic. The state government spends over $8 billion every year. Are we to believe that there wasn’t $37 million to be found anywhere else? Are we to believe that every government program works? Of course not. But not one of the JFC cuts from today reduces the size of any state government program. Not one,” said state Sens. Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, and Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, in a statement.

“We continue to be committed to real, permanent changes to our state government that makes Delaware better, not just more expensive. We look forward to further conversations that will lead to a sustainable, successful state government.” 

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