When the General Assembly passed a record-setting $1.3 billion bond bill last week, the spending package did not include a list of the $70 million in projects chosen by legislators for their districts.
The Community Redevelopment Fund includes one-time allocations which legislators earmark for nonprofits, schools and community agencies in their districts.
Ordinarily, each organization receiving funding would have its own line item within the Bond Bill. This way, if a legislator should object to particular recipients of funding, they could vote accordingly.
But this year, because of the amount of funds available and the number of organizations that applied, the total $70 million fund was listed as one line-item under the assurance that the list of recipients would be made public once finalized.
Both the House and Senate passed the budget, and Gov. John Carney signed it without the list.
Some legislators say the list should be included in the Bond Bill as a matter of transparency so it could be presented to the public before a vote.
Others say the decisions had already been made but the list itself had not been collated, and that in order to meet the June 30 deadline, this was how it had to be done.
Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, argued that while he recognizes the unique challenges the state faced this year because of the unusually large budget, structural problems were revealed within the bond process itself.
“This year proved that the bond structure was ill-equipped to handle the amount of money we had. What this has resulted in is essentially a gentlemen’s agreement with tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on the line,” said Spiegelman. “This is the very definition of pork-barrel-spending, where legislators have this big pile of cash and they’re forced to play a game of ‘come and grab it’ for these funds.”
Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, disagreed. She said the list should be out soon, “hopefully by the end of this week.”
“Rep. Spiegelman might choose not to take any money for his district if that’s how he feels about it,” Poore said “I don’t know why Rep. Spiegelman would make such a comment but I bet his colleagues wouldn’t feel so favorable about him saying that.”
She said everybody who has served on the Bond Committee has been committed to helping their communities.
“For the first time, we have the ability to do that,” Poore said. “If you look at what we did on the line items, the amount of infrastructure that we are building, and the amount of people we are putting back to work, especially after this pandemic, it’s overwhelming and it’s a great feeling.”
“Sen. Poore does more to prove what I’m saying than I think she realizes,” Spiegelman said. “It’s a classic carrot-and-stick situation, where the carrot is the support for your district and the stick is the bond bill,” said Spiegelman.
Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, Senate minority leader, said that there was “nothing untoward going on” and that this year, “for time’s sake, the decision was made to combine them all into one line item.”
“Of course I’d like to see them published prior, but this was the best option for this year,” said Pettyjohn.
Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Camden, said he would prefer the list be made available before the vote, but because it’s such a small amount relative to the entire Bond Bill, it’s not a huge issue.
“People will be able to see the effects of this spending in their communities and can make a decision then,” he said.
Yearick compared community redevelopment funds to community transportation funds, which are not enumerated upfront but are allocated at the discretion of individual legislators throughout the fiscal year.
He and others were more frustrated that even with the unprecedented surplus of $1.2 billion, there was no money given back to taxpayers in the form of tax relief or rebate.
“We provided zero dollars in tax relief into the hands of Delaware taxpayers who have suffered, some more than others, during the pandemic with regard to their livelihood, their businesses, their jobs, their mortgages,” Yearick said. “And yet we just spent $500 million like it’s nothing.”
Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Frederica, supported passing the Bond Bill without the finalized list, and noted that he would have “absolutely supported giving money back to the taxpayers.”
Bonini has sponsored numerous bills throughout his 26 years in the Senate to do just that.
Poore said she would have to wait and see a proposal to either cut taxes or return money to taxpayers in the form of rebates. She said the proposal “isn’t anything new” and would have to see the legislation before she could comment further.
Poore said she didn’t know if this year’s surplus is something “we will ever see again,” partly because so much of it stemmed from federal COVID-19 relief.
Spiegelman retorted: “I didn’t know Senator Poore had a crystal ball.”
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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