Budget hearings continue with departments of Education and Justice

Posted

DOVER — The General Assembly’s budget-writing committee heard from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education on Wednesday.

Members of the Joint Finance Committee listened to and questioned officials from the two agencies over their budget needs and initiatives.

Gov. John Carney’s budget proposal expends $40.4 million to the Justice Department, about $660,000 more than in the current fiscal year. Attorney General Kathy Jennings is seeking an additional $600,000 on top of that, mostly to add more deputy attorneys general and paralegals.

Those positions would deal with a variety of issues, including elder abuse, data privacy and consumer protection.

Ms. Jennings also urged lawmakers to provide her office with 22 positions to handle police body camera footage. About 21 law enforcement agencies currently outfit their officers with cameras, and both Ms. Jennings and Gov. Carney have called for expanding that to cover every cop in the state.

“Adequate resources are imperative to this effort” of keeping Delawareans safe, Ms. Jennings told the JFC.

She also expressed hope that lawmakers will revamp the state’s bail system to eliminate cash bail, which she described as unfairly punishing poor individuals charged with crimes.

The Department of Education’s budget currently totals $1.64 billion, more than 95% of which is for school district operations. The plan unveiled by Gov. Carney last month would allocate $1.69 billion to the agency, about 36% of total General Fund spending.

Legislators had questions on educational topics like COVID-19 and mental health, wondering when students across the state might be able to return to in-person learning.

“Our kids are suffering because of COVID,” said Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel. “They’re suffering because of a lot of things.”

Many people, both lawmakers and members of the public, called on the General Assembly to pass legislation expanding funding for student mental health support. There were also pleas for more resources to help children in Wilmington, many of whom grow up in poverty and are surrounded by violence. Delaware recently settled a lawsuit alleging its education system does not do enough to help needy pupils, and as part of that agreement, the state is set to offer targeted funding for certain categories of disadvantaged students.

“I also urge you to treat this lawsuit settlement as a floor, not a ceiling,” said Maria Matos, the president and CEO of the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington.

Education Secretary Susan Bunting noted that the enrollment count is down slightly this school year, a consequence of COVID-19. In addition, the number of seniors has declined compared to last year, a potentially troubling sign, she told the JFC.

The Office of Defense Services and the judiciary are among the state entities going before the committee today. The initial JFC hearings then conclude next week with the Department of Health and Social Services, proceedings for which are spread over three days.

To watch and give public comment, go to the Joint Finance Committee section of the Delaware General Assembly website and select the appropriate meeting date.

The General Assembly will finalize a spending plan in May and June. Legislators have until the beginning of July to approve a budget plan.