Delaware joint committee holding capital budget hearings this week

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DOVER — The next step in the process of crafting a state budget takes place this week, with the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement meeting to review the planned capital bond bill.

The full General Assembly is on a one-week break, setting aside for the time being issues like gun control as it moves toward the June 30 deadline for approving a spending plan. Lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement, also known as the Bond Committee, will hear from agency chiefs and others as they analyze Gov. John Carney’s January spending recommendations.

The Joint Finance Committee, which breaks down the operating budget, held its first round of meetings in February. It will mark up the budget the final week in May and the first week in June, with the full legislature convening the other six weeks.

A new fiscal year begins July 1, the day the regular legislative session concludes for the next six months.

Monday saw the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement receive an overview from the Office of Management and Budget of what’s set to be the largest capital bond bill in state history and heard directly from the Department of Agriculture, the Delaware State Housing Authority and the Department of Transportation.

The capital spending plan the governor unveiled earlier this year totals $894 million, an increase of 26% or $186 million. That’s the biggest total in state history, although it’s right in line with the $893 million appropriation recommended before the pandemic struck in 2020.

The current mark for largest capital bond bill is $863 million, from the fiscal year which ended June 30, 2020.

The governor’s recommendations include $50 million for construction of new Family Court buildings Downstate, $50 million to clean up the state’s waterways, $10 million for farmland preservation, $5 million for beach preservation, $10 million each for capital needs for the University of Delaware, Delaware State University and Delaware Technical Community College and almost $35 million for minor capital improvements and deferred maintenance on state buildings, to name a few areas covered in the 77-page proposed legislation.

The capital budget is also set to contain $20 million for the fund used to incentivize companies to stay or settle in Delaware, $15 million for economic development projects by higher education entities, $10 million for infrastructure improvements aimed at attracting businesses and $10 million to establish lab space for start-ups.

Office of Management and Budget Director Cerron Cade, who is in his first budget cycle after being confirmed in January, told lawmakers on the committee Monday the state is still awaiting guidance from Washington on the federal stimulus measure signed into law in March.

“We may not have all the information that we need to draw a complete picture by June 30,” he said, noting the stimulus funding from the most recent round doesn’t expire for more than three years.

There will be more clarity around the budget in other areas this time next month after the Joint Finance Committee meets. Gov. Carney’s January proposal called for sending nearly $261 million in cash to the bond bill, though projections for revenue and expenses have been updated since then. Once the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council meets on May 17 to issue new estimates, legislators will have a better idea of how much money they have to spend, and JFC will modify the January plan.

The governor has emphasized one-time projects, investing hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars into initiatives that do not have ongoing costs. Over the past few years, Delaware has poured funding into infrastructure in particular, using the money to create construction jobs and build or repair facilities.

Mr. Cade told committee members construction on the new Sussex County Family Court facility is expected to start in the fall, with work on a very similar building in Kent County to follow about six months later. Both current courthouses are considered cramped, outdated and unsafe.

During DelDOT’s hearing, several legislators and Secretary Nicole Majeski discussed the annual allocation to lawmakers for roadwork and other projects in their districts. DelDOT controls about 90% of the state’s roads, but some don’t receive regular maintenance from the agency because they rank too far down on the project priority list due to relatively low traffic volume.

Lawmakers receive money — $275,000 each in the current fiscal year — through the Community Transportation Fund, a program that’s drawn some criticism because it allows money to be used for items only somewhat connected to the original purpose, such as all-terrain vehicles for first responders. It also falls short in other ways, as the annual appropriation doesn’t come close to covering all the mileage in many districts, particularly those in the more urbanized New Castle County.

At the direction of the General Assembly, DelDOT has been conducting a pilot program for a few years, setting aside some funds for paving and rehabilitating community streets under its direction as needed.

Secretary Nicole Majeski faced several questions about revamping CTF, prompting her to respond that such a change should be made only after a larger conversation.

“We have to balance between the paving and rehab program that we have, that we’re investing around $80 million every year in ... and the investment into our subdivision streets, which has to this point been handled through the Community Transportation Fund because they couldn’t compete with the other roads in the state that had higher traffic volumes,” said Ms. Majeski, who, like Mr. Cade, was officially confirmed in January.

Tuesday’s hearings include the Department of Health and Social Services, the judiciary and the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.