by Terry Rogers
On June 26, the Delaware General Assembly passed a balanced budget, several days ahead of their June 30 deadline. The $4.27 billion operating budget includes pay increases and extended maternity leave time for state employees, restores Grant-in-Aid funding that was eliminated after last year’s budget shortfall and an increase in bus contractor pay. Unlike last year, this year’s General Assembly worked with a budget surplus.
“With so much unexpected cash coming in, I was pleased budget writers held the line on growth and used much of the one-time cash for one-time public projects in the Bond Bill or set it aside for next year,” Representative Charles Postles said. “I was extremely disappointed we were not given a chance to vote on House Bill 460. I co-sponsored this bipartisan bill to fundamentally reform our budgetary processes, limit state spending and shield taxpayers from the state’s year-to-year revenue swings.”
Representative Harvey Kenton was pleased that the legislature reduced the state spending threshold from 98 percent to 97 percent. As a member of the Joint Finance committee, Representative Kenton explained that it was important not to lock the state into future obligations when revenue may not be available. An additional $47 million was added to the budgetary buffer which currently holds about $140 million and the state has a fully funded Rainy Day Fund that totals $231.6 million.
“Fortunately, state revenues increased this year and the Legislature was able to restore funding to most of the not-for-profits throughout the state,” Senator Gary Simpson said. “Funding was cut considerably last year due to budget shortfalls. State employees were also able to see an increase in their pay. State salaries had been stagnant for some time due to budget deficiencies in prior years. I was disappointed when state retirees were given a one-time $400 stipend. Some of these employees have been retired 20-30 years or more and are living on a fixed level of pension. I thought more should have been given and that it should become part of their annual increase rather than just one time.”
Representative Kenton was also pleased that state employees received salary increases under the new budget.
“The operating budget contained a $1,000 annual raise for state employees, a two-percent raise for teachers as well as more than $10 million in additional funding for state retiree health care coverage, continuing their high level of service while shielding them from higher premiums and deductibles,’ Representative Kenton said. “The budget also increased the starting salary of Correctional Officers to $43,000 as we continue to deal with attracting more applicants and addressing chronic short-staffing in our prison system. These prudent investments in Delaware’s public work force were done while holding overall spending growth under four percent.”
The three local legislators also agree that bus contractors had been long overdue for an increase. Representative Kenton commented that it was getting more difficult to find qualified school bus drivers. He believed that the adjustment would help slow the growth of the problem, but he is unsure where the trend would take the state in the future.
“School bus operators perform one of the most important services in our society, the daily transportation of our children,” Representative Postles said. “I have heard from contractors in my district and elsewhere. Some have either left the business or are considering it. This increase was needed and I think this is an issue that will require further attention in the future.”
Senator Simpson would have liked to see the recommendations of the Budget Smoothing Task Force enacted and more than $46 million set aside for future revenue shortfalls, commenting that he always says, “if you give politicians more money, they will spend it every time.” He also explained that although minimum wage was raised in Delaware, a last-minute amendment provided a lesser amount for youth and those going through a training period which should help small businesses and restaurants that depend on summer youth to help assist year-round staff.
Having only been in the General Assembly less than a year, Representative Postles quickly became aware of the public’s demand for the completion of public works projects that had been postponed as the state attempted to recover after the recession. Since much of the additional revenue this year was one-time funding, he felt it made sense to dedicate a large portion of the extra revenue to address those unmet needs.
“I feel that Grant-in-Aid funding, the operating budget, and the Bond Bill all contain funding that will benefit Milford-area residents,” Representative Kenton said. “Specific projects include the ongoing work on the Northeast Front Street interchange and the new greenhouse at Milford High School.” Representative Postles added that upgrades to the Delaware Veteran’s Home as well as things that benefit people living in his district including the Clean Water Revolving Fund, tax ditch maintenance and funding for Milford School District to improve security at each facility.
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