The governor unveiled the spending plan at a Jan. 24 news conference.

Gov. John Carney is placing a heavy emphasis on education, especially at the grade school level, in his Fiscal Year 2019/2020 state budget, introduced Thursday, Jan. 24.

The spending plan, which does not call for any tax increases, totals $4.33 billion for operating expenses, up 3.8 percent from last year’s general fund budget.

Adding other spending, including Grants-in-Aid, bond and capital improvements, and a separate bill to cover Carney’s educational opportunities plan and Delaware’s presidential primary, the budget totals $5.19 billion for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020.

Carney plans to spend $678 million on capital improvements throughout Delaware, including long-delayed repairs to state buildings.

During his briefing before the members of his cabinet and the General Assembly, the governor said the budget includes $61.3 million in mandatory spending to cover areas such as hikes in Medicaid premiums, increasing student population in schools, transportation costs for school districts, union-negotiated step pay increases and debt service.

“Preparing the budget is the most important thing we do in this administration,” Carney said.

Major goals

The budget has five overreaching goals: investing in current jobs and newly developing jobs, giving Delaware children a chance to succeed in education, improving the quality of health care while containing its costs, providing safe and secure communities and making state government more effective and efficient, the governor said.

Carney’s proposal includes the $60 million in projected spending, spread over three years, to target resources for students learning English and those in low-income areas. The plan allows school districts and charter schools to provide smaller class sizes, fund additional reading, and math specialists and provide after-school counseling, among other initiatives. Each plan must be approved by the Department of Education, which also will monitor results under the program.

The governor said he is “very focused” on educational opportunities for Delaware’s students, ensuring, 1) all third-graders are proficient in reading; 2) eighth-graders will be math proficient, and 3) high school graduates are either ready for college or a career.

Other education-related topics in the budget include $2 million for a two-percent pay increase for educators. Teachers will be offered help in paying off their student loans if they agree to serve in economically-depressed schools.

The University of Delaware, Delaware State University and Delaware Technical Community College will divide $15 million from an economic development fund intended to find ways to increase economic growth and job development in the state.

Carney also has targeted $21 million to fund deferred maintenance projects, technology upgrades and capital improvements at those schools, as well as $1.2 million to help in-state students with tuition costs at the University of Delaware.

State employees, including those working in the education field who are not teachers, will receive a flat $1,000 pay increase, a plan that will cost about $34 million. State workers also will find funding to support a 12-week paid parental leave program.

Capital spending, which is provided in a separate bill, targets $2.8 million in work at Wilmington’s Carvel State Office Building, $5 million to clear up maintenance backlogs in other state facilities, primarily repairs to leaking roofs, and $1.5 million in renovations to the 60-year-old Jesse S. Cooper Building in Dover, which houses the state’s Health and Social Services Division.

Carney also wants to add 34 new caseworkers to bolster child welfare investigations in the Division of Family Services and nine additional staff members to investigate labor violations and discrimination complaints at the Department of Labor.

Saving for the bad years

One area Carney stressed was an executive order he signed in June designed to create a budget stabilization fund, a move he made after a proposed constitutional amendment with that goal failed after fellow Democrats in the General Assembly opposed it.

Executive Order 21 requires the state to set aside money into a Budget Stabilization Fund in years when the economy is healthy and surplus funding is available at the end of each fiscal year. That money would be used when the economy goes into a downturn.

Although the state also has what’s termed a “rainy day fund,” which at last report contains more than $250 million, it never has been used.

That law, set up in the 1970s during the DuPont administration, can be used to cover any “unanticipated deficit” or revenue reductions enacted by the General Assembly and requires the approval of 60 percent of the membership of both houses.

Carney said his Budget Stabilization Fund does not have these restrictions and will help prevent cuts in services and/or tax hikes when there isn’t enough projected revenue to meet state needs.

Available online

The governor’s budget is balanced between spending and expected revenue, as required by law.

The appropriations legislation, HB 50, which lays out requested operating costs for each department in state government, was introduced the same day and assigned to the House Appropriations Committee. It is sponsored by House Speaker Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf and President Pro Tempore David McBride. Additional sponsors include Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore, Senate Majority Whip Bryan Townsend and Sen. Harris McDowell. House sponsors include Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, Majority Whip John Mitchell and Rep. Quinton Johnson.

A copy of the 296-page bill is online at https://tinyurl.com/2020Appropriations. It and other budget legislation will be debated through hearings conducted by the Joint Finance Committee beginning Jan. 31.

A final version must be approved in the General Assembly by the June 30 date that marks the end of the current fiscal year.

SUBHED ‘I am very encouraged’

Carney’s presentation got a tentative thumbs-up from state Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, who has a track record of voting against state budget bills once they reach the Senate floor.

He particularly likes the governor’s budget stabilization ideas, of saving money from good years to have it available when the economy goes south.

“For years, we’ve been pushing for what are some rational limits to make sure we don’t go through this up-and-down process,” he said, noting the idea had been proposed by former state Treasurer Ken Simpler. “I think that is absolutely the right way to go and I’m very supportive of that concept and the governor deserves a lot of credit for proposing it.”

Will he vote for this budget?

“We will see how this ends up, but I am very encouraged and very pleased with what the governor has proposed,” Bonini said.

Rep. Ruth Briggs-King, R-Georgetown, who serves on the Joint Finance Committee, said she liked the overall budget proposal, calling it “well-constructed.”

In addition to favoring the stabilization fund and spending one-time money on specific, finite projects, she’s also pleased the governor is focusing on education needs, particularly in Sussex County schools.

“All in all, I saw fiscal responsibility, holding that budget to DEFAC’s recommendations and then saving money on top of that, adding to that sustainability fund.

“Very important things,” Briggs-King said.