Delaware operating budget approved, but lots of legislation left for state lawmakers

The exterior of Legislative Hall in Dover.

Legislative Hall in Dover. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

With near-unanimous votes in both chambers, lawmakers approved Delaware’s $4.77 billion operating budget. The move avoids what has in past years been a marathon budget debate into the wee hours of July 1. That long night may still happen, but at least the operating budget won’t be the culprit this year.

The budget approved last week is about $60 million more than what Gov. John Carney proposed in January.

The additional spending is due in part to an improving revenue picture. The Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council (DEFAC), which set the revenue estimate Carney’s budget was based on at the beginning of the year, added more than $350 million to its revenue forecast over the past six months. Carney’s budget plan was built off DEFAC’s December revenue estimate of $4.765 billion for FY 2022. This month, that estimate was revised to $5.124 billion.

“Working on this budget this year, we started out at a good starting point and it just got better as the year went on, as the revenue increased throughout the year, a little bit here and there,” said state Sen. Trey Paradee. He’s vice-chair of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC), which meets throughout the year to hammer out the massive budget bill.

Next year’s budget process could be a bit tougher. DEFAC is already projecting a $37 million decline in revenues, Paradee said.

The budget includes a $500 pay raise for all state employees. Those workers will also get a one-time bonus of $1,000 to be paid out in November as part of companion legislation approved alongside the budget that includes spending $221 million of one-time funds on one-time expenses.

“There’s a difference between one-time money and recurring expenses,” Paradee said. “We had to be very careful about building too many recurring expenses into the budget that would lead to our budget growth exceeding 5% and getting to a point where it might be unsustainable.”

Public school teachers will get a 1% raise in addition to their expected step increases. Those getting a state pension will also see a raise of 1% to 3% depending on how long they’ve been retired. Those retirees will also get a $500 bonus in November.

The state will spend $20 million to cover the increased health insurance costs, meaning employees won’t see any increase in premiums or copays.

“We were fortunate this year that, even in the wake of a global pandemic, we had the resources and the will to make the kind of investments that will strengthen our state’s economy, support our workers and retirees, and broaden educational opportunities for our children up and down the state,” said Rep. Bill Carson, who co-chaired the JFC.

Despite growing nearly 5% over the current spending plan, the FY 2022 budget sets aside a combined $220 in the state’s Rainy Day Fund and the budget stabilization fund. Those two accounts now hold more than $500 million the state could tap into in case of an economic downturn.

“This is a responsible, sustainable financial plan that protects taxpayer dollars and invests in the future of our state,” Gov. Carney said. “We’re adding to our budget reserves so we’ll again be ready if we face a crisis or revenue downturn.

Republican State Rep. Rich Collins joined fellow Republican Sen. Colin Bonini as the only two members of the General Assembly to vote against the budget. Collins said since the state was flush with cash this year, some money should have been returned to residents.

“It’s difficult for me to understand why we have not given anything back to Delaware taxpayers and undone some of the tax increases that we did in the past few years,” Collins said. “We had several really tough years in there where we raised taxes when we needed revenue. Well, now we have the most historic revenue surplus that we’ve ever had, and we’re not giving any of it back to the taxpayers.”

While the operating budget is now out of the way, the state’s capital budget, which funds infrastructure improvement projects and other items, is still awaiting approval. In January, Carney proposed a nearly $900 million capital budget which includes money for new construction and upgrades at schools, court facilities, and other locations owned by the state.

The other spending bill yet to be approved is the $60 million Grant-in-Aid measure, which funds nonprofits throughout the state.

Still to come

Other legislation still expected to see debate before the end of the session Wednesday includes a pair of measures designed to protect young people who are going through the criminal justice system.

House Bill 115, sponsored by state Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha of Wilmington, would limit the age at which young people are able to be prosecuted. Criminal prosecution of those under 12 would be prohibited, and children under the age of 16 would only be transferred to Superior Court for the most serious of charges, including murder and rape.

Police would be banned from posting pictures of juvenile mug shots under House Bill 243, sponsored by state Rep. Franklin Cooke. The bill would also prohibit police from posting the name of anyone under 17 unless they are charged with a violent felony or publication of the photo and identity is “necessary to protect the public’s safety.”

Both bills have been approved in the House and are expected to be voted on Tuesday afternoon in the Senate.

Legislation requiring handgun owners to get training and be registered with the state is still awaiting action in the House after it was approved in the Senate earlier this year. That bill is not currently on the House agenda for this week.

Another gun measure, also approved by the Senate earlier this year, is headed back to that chamber after being amended by the House last week. That measure would outlaw high-capacity magazines.

Despite assurances to supporters that a bill legalizing recreational marijuana would get a vote before June 30, that effort appears to be stalled until next year.

Lawmakers will adjourn their work for the year on Wednesday, but they’ll be back in Dover later this fall to debate how to redraw legislative district lines.

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Editor’s note: WHYY’s Delaware newsroom is one of the recipients of grant-in-aid funding.

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