In first-ever virtual budget session, Del. lawmakers brace for cuts amid pandemic

Delaware lawmakers are working to balance the state budget in virtual committee hearings after COVID-19 turned a year of spending into a year of cuts.

The Delaware Capitol building, Dover, De.

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

Delaware’s economy has taken a significant hit since the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shutdown brought business in the state to a halt. That turned what had been a year of plenty and a budget plan that grew state spending by nearly 4% into a year of deficit and cuts.

On Tuesday, members of the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee held their second day of budget hearings with state agencies presenting amendments to their spending plans to fill the budget hole.

Instead of in-person meetings, for the first time in state history, only a handful of lawmakers were actually physically present at Legislative Hall in Dover. Most of the debate was done via video conference with the audio live-streamed for the public to see on YouTube.

State Budget Director Mike Jackson said it’s a difficult process because there’s still so much uncertainty going into the new budget year, which starts on July 1. For instance, it’s not clear when the federal support put in place during the pandemic will expire, especially the increased federal share of Medicaid funding.

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“We may see an increase in the eligible population in the coming months, we’re going to have to continue to monitor this budget to make sure we can pay our bills,” Jackson said. “As we’re looking at our overall fiscal plan and not using all our savings, this is why we don’t know what we don’t know yet.”

Some lawmakers bristled at proposed cuts Tuesday morning.

For example, state Rep. Earl Jaques wasn’t happy to see fundings cut for Delaware State University’s culturally responsive teacher recruitment initiative. The program is an effort to increase the number of culturally competent educators in urban, high-needs schools across the state by providing mentorship and other support. The governor’s initial budget proposal included $350,000 for the program. Committee members approved a change that dropped that amount to zero.

“We will never be able to solve a lot of the problems with Wilmington’s education until we get this program moving forward,” said Jaques, a Democrat.

State Sen. Dave Lawson, a Republican, pointed out that the funding cut only eliminated an increase in funding for the program that was part of Gov. John Carney’s budget proposal, not a complete elimination of the program altogether.

Jaques conceded that point, but said the program has very little funding to begin with and needed money this year to get off the ground.

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“Without this enhancement, that program really won’t be doing anything,” Jaques said.

The committee is scheduled to continue hammering away at the budget through next week. Big decisions on issues like a proposed pay raise for state workers are still on the table. Lawmakers have until June 30 to approve a balanced budget.

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