Legislators approve $3.7 billion budgetPlan includes more funding for Medicaid, youth programs
Dover — State lawmakers approved a $3.7 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning Monday, July 1.
The vast majority of the budget funds state agencies, such as Delaware Department of Transportation, which will receive a total of $342 million, and Delaware Department of Corrections, which will get about $270 million. Nearly two-thirds of the budget will fund the departments of health and education.
House Representatives passed Delaware’s fiscal 2014 operating budget 40-1, June 25. Senators approved the spending plan 17-4, June 27.
House Bill 200 increases the budget 3.66 percent – $130 million – from last year. State officials say much of the increase can be attributed to rising costs of employee retirement and health benefits, the need for more teachers and increased debt service.
Medicaid costs went up because of implementation of the Affordable Care Act, totaling $35.8 million, an increase of $14 million over last year. The budget for the entire Department of Health and Social Services is more than $1 billion.
Delaware Department of Education will receive $1.2 billion, and several budget increases will fund programs for Delaware youth and schools.
Nearly $7 million will go to special school graduates and placements through the Division of Developmental Disabilities Services and $2.6 million will be spent on computers for state testing.
Gov. Jack Markell released his proposed budget in January, and Lt. Gov. Matt Denn said he was tasked with allocating money to make up for a statewide lack in child mental health services. The budget bill allocates $3.3 million to increase the number of mental health professionals in middle schools.
Another $2.2 million is earmarked for targeted prevention programs for youth, such as suicide awareness and anti-bullying. The budget also gives Indian River School District $2 million to implement full-day kindergarten.
Other notable budget items include a $3.2 million contingency fund for the federal sequester and $1 million to upgrade court security at New Castle County Courthouse.
Delaware State Police will receive $1.2 million for 30 new cruisers and $530,500 for six new troopers.
State Service Centers for the Community Food Program will get $300,000, and a total of $1 million in state funding would be used for home-delivered meals.
The budget-writing process began in November, and the bipartisan Joint Finance Committee held public hearings and multiple meetings before it released the 300-page budget.
JFC Co-chairwoman Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, introduced the budget June 19. “We didn’t have a lot of additional money to allocate, but what funds were available were spent on programs for those who need it most: Children, seniors and people with disabilities,” Smith said in a press release. “This budget touches every Delaware family in some way.”
The only representative who opposed the budget was Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown. After the vote, Briggs King said state spending goes up every year. “We’re asking taxpayers to increase their obligations,” she said. “We’re asking businesses to pay more.”
One area in which Briggs King said the state should cut back is Medicaid spending. “Medicaid is over one-third of this budget,” she said.
Briggs King said the state also builds too much escheat money – which is transferred to the state when it goes unclaimed – into its budget. “We’re building a budget around a lot of one-time money,” she said.
Instead of spending more on some initiatives, Briggs King said, the state needs to fulfill its basic obligations, such as giving state employees a raise. “You’re looking for expansion of some things without taking care of other things,” she said.
Briggs King also said the budget is focused on allocating money for children, but neglects the growing senior population. “The money needs to follow the person,” she said.
Sussex County senators were split on HB 200. Sens. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes; Gary Simpson, R-Milford; and Bob Venables, D-Laurel voted to approve the budget. Sens. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, and Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, were of the four senators who opposed the plan.
The Bond Bill
Senators approved $477 million for the state's capital budget unanimously, June 26.
Senate Bill 145 includes about $196 million for transportation projects and another $103 million for school construction.
If the House passes Senate Bill 145, an additional $10 million would be given to school districts to spend on minor capital improvements and equipment.
The Bond Bill gives $8 million to the Diamond State Port Corporation, which operates the Port of Wilmington; $8 million to help the state's three casinos; $333,000 to local law enforcement; and $5.1 million from the general fund to the Transportation Trust Fund.
In a June 21 press release, Sens. Colin Bonini, R-Dover South, and Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, the two Senate Republicans on the 12-member committee, called the plan fiscally responsible.
"We had limited money and a lot of requests," Hocker said. "I think the objective that we all had was to spend the money in a way that would create the most jobs and put the most people to work. And I think we did that."
SB 145 heads to the House for consideration.