DOVER— Delaware lawmakers passed budget bills to fund state operations in the fiscal year that starts today, and approved a host of other bills before bringing down the gavel on this year’s legislative session.
House and Senate lawmakers recessed shortly before 5 a.m. today, just after the Senate gave final approval to a capital budget for roads and construction projects.
Four hours earlier, House lawmakers gave final approval to roughly $46 million in grants for community groups and nonprofit agencies. The grants package represents an increase of about $3 million compared to last year.
Earlier in the week, lawmakers passed a $4 billion operating budget, an increase of more than 4 percent over the fiscal 2016 spending plan.
“It was a tough budget,” said Gov. Jack Markell, who saw lawmakers reject or reduce some of his spending proposals. He was particularly disappointed that lawmakers rejected his proposal to add $2 million in funding for substance abuse treatment programs.
“Given the crises that so many families in Delaware are facing, I would have liked to have seen that,” he said.
Markell thanked lawmakers, however, for other budget decisions, including increasing funding for early childhood education programs by about $9 million, slightly less than the $11 million he requested.
Meanwhile, lawmakers pulled general fund cash from a variety of state accounts to help fashion a $501 million capital budget for roads, schools and other construction projects, up from $456 million last year.
Lawmakers also added to the capital budget by clawing back $1.5 million in state funds that had been offered to Wilmington to help address the city’s violent crime problem after city officials refused to abide by conditions that came along with the money. Those conditions included submitting historic police deployment data to lawmakers and agreeing to work with consultants who assisted a commission established by lawmakers to examine public safety strategies for the city.
“They were never able to come to terms with the mayor,” Markell said. “I think it’s disappointing that that money has been setting there for Wilmington’s use and it didn’t get done.”
Lawmakers passed bills allowing convicted felons to vote before they have paid all fines, fees and restitution, and limiting the use of leg shackles on juvenile defendants in court proceedings. They also toughened penalties for texting or otherwise using a hand-held phone while driving, and authorized the statewide expansion of a needle exchange program aimed at reducing the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other diseases among drug addicts.
The capital budget includes more than $236 million for school construction and capital improvements and more than $265 million for roads and other transportation projects. It received overwhelming support despite concerns from some lawmakers about depleting funds for open space and farmland preservation. “This is going to put a lot of people to work,” said Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, co-chair of the capital budget committee.
The most contentious issue on the final night of the session was a controversial school redistricting aimed at helping low-income minority students in Wilmington.
While not providing necessary funding or formally endorsing the redistricting plan, as required by state law for implementation, lawmakers agreed to give the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, which developed the proposal, $200,000 to continue its work.