Del. budget includes ‘hard choices’

No increased or additional taxes.

That’s the goal of the Delaware operating budget released today by Gov. Jack Markell.

The Markell administration is proposing a $3.4 billion budget for 2012 that would increase spending by 3.85 percent but does not call for raising taxes or dipping into reserve funds. The weather prevented the Governor from presenting his budget in person. He did post it on the state OMB website.

But to compensate for rising costs and stagnant state revenues, Markell is proposing a mix of program cuts, unspent federal stimulus money, and funding transfers to balance the budget. The budget also calls for the elimination of 55 casual/seasonal positions with the Department of Health and Human Services.

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“This is a difficult, but financially responsible budget,” Markell said. “It makes clear our top priority for the present is helping people get back to work and expanding opportunity for people who are working.”

Some of the $100 million in proposed agency and program cuts include:

Eliminating Farmland Preservation funding ($10 million savings)
Eliminating Open Space funding ($10 million)
Reducing Higher Education funding ($6.5 million)
Eliminating General Assistance funding in DHSS ($4.5 million)

“We really needed to continue to focus on making our investments in the state’s infrastructure and job creation and education,” said budget director Ann Visalli. “So that meant there were other things we really wanted to fund that are important programs that we just couldn’t do.”

The budget also includes a proposal to reform health and pension benefits for state employees. The goal of that plan is at least $100 million in savings over five years, starting with $3.2 million in savings in 2012.

Visalli says the specifics of that plan, including whether the changes will include current employees, aren’t yet known. She says meetings with union leaders are scheduled.

“We’re going to be beginning those conversations and working with them to come up with some specific proposals as soon as possible,” she said.

Lawmakers will have until the end of June to approve proposed changes to employee benefits and the rest of the budget.

Sen. Colin Bonini (R-Dover South) says the proposed cuts are a nice start, but that’s about all.

“We’re spending too much money,” Bonini said. “The bottom line is 48 cents of every dollar that we spend – and this is the governor’s number – is a human being or the benefits for that human being. And another 30 cents-plus of every dollar is Medicaid. And until you address those big budget busters in a meaningful way, you’re going to continue to spend too much.”

In addition to the operating budget, the governor proposed spending $420.5 million on road and building construction projects, up from about $390 million this year.

The proposed capital budget authorizes $222 million for building projects and $198 million for transportation projects.

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