Gov. Markell signs $3.9B fiscal 2016 budget

RANDALL CHASE, Associated Press

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Delaware lawmakers approved a $3.9 billion operating budget early Wednesday, shortly after the start of the new fiscal year, after resolving an impasse over a transportation funding bill that was the subject of partisan bickering and intense closed-door negotiations between Republicans and Democrats.

Gov. Jack Markell signed the fiscal 2016 budget around 5:40 a.m., bringing an end to an all-night finale to this year’s six-month legislative session, which the two-term governor described as the “craziest” of his tenure in office.

“Coming into today, I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Markell said, praising lawmakers for finally coming together on a bill to raise vehicle fees to pay for road improvements.

Markell also signed a $456 million capital budget for road and construction projects, including $209 million for transportation improvements, and a $43 million grants budget that provides money to nonprofit groups, community agencies and volunteer fire companies.

A last-minute flurry of work on the budget bills began in earnest after Senate Republicans and Democrats resolved an impasse on legislation raising vehicle fees starting Oct. 1 to help pay for road projects. The measure was defeated in the Democratic-led Senate last week when it failed to gain any GOP support, but was recalled and passed late Tuesday night with the needed Republican votes.

In return for Republican support on the vehicle bill, Democrats joined in Republican proposals to create a “lockbox” on the transportation trust fund, prohibiting use of the new vehicle fee money to pay for operating expenses of the Department of Transportation instead of construction projects.

“This language was the result of a lot of back-and-forth,” said Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Wilmington.

The fee increases will raise about $24 million annually, matched by $24 million in borrowing, amounting to about $300 million over six years for the cash-strapped transportation agency. Delaware Department of Transportation officials say they are facing a $780 million deficit over the next six years for road maintenance and delayed projects.

Opponents of the new operating budget, which represents an increase of about 2.5 percent over the 2015 budget, said it perpetuates unnecessary spending and ignores troubling revenue projections for fiscal 2017.

“We refuse to do anything but kick the can down the road,” said Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark.

Budget writers defended the spending plan as fair, reasonable and necessary. A third of the operating budget, $1.3 million, is for public education, and another $1.1 million is allocated for health and social services, including nearly $700 million for Medicaid.

Before approval of the grants package, budget committee members reversed an earlier decision to impose across-the-board cuts of 5 percent for local groups that receive money from the grants-in-aid package. Committee members restored the money using $2.3 million in one-time funds from Delaware’sshare of a nationwide financial settlement. They also used settlement money to restore $3 million in funding for farmland preservation, after zeroing out the program last week.

In other last-day action, lawmakers gave final approval to legislation, quickly signed by Markell, allowing certain people living in the U.S. illegally to gain driving privileges in Delaware.

The measure, which takes effect in six months, allows driving privilege cards to be issued to people who are in the country illegally and who have filed Delaware state income tax returns for the preceding two years, or who have lived in Delaware and been claimed as a dependent on a state income tax return.

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