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Delaware lawmakers give final approval to new budget

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The Delaware state House has given final approval to a $4.5 billion operating budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

House members voted 40-to-1 for the budget bill Wednesday, one day after it cleared the state Senate.

The fiscal 2021 spending plan is $73 million larger than the current operating budget that was approved last year, but it is also $100 million less than what Democratic Gov. John Carney proposed in January. That was before the coronavirus restrictions he imposed on economic activity in Delaware, which led to sharp drops in revenue estimates, unprecedented unemployment filings and shuttered businesses.

Carney had proposed increasing the operating budget by almost 4% with millions in new spending, including a third straight pay raise for state employees. That plan quickly fell apart after revenues tanked in March and April.

While the budget does not include another across-the-board pay raise for state employees, lawmakers managed to avoid cutting employee positions or benefits or having to raise taxes as revenue estimates gradually improved in recent weeks. They also drew down tens of millions from a new budget reserve fund that Carney had pushed for in flusher times that is separate from, and more readily available than, the state's rainy day fund, which has never been tapped.

"Despite significant revenue challenges related to the COVID-19 crisis, we intended to protect critical investments in public education, and to protect the jobs and livelihoods of Delaware's state workers," Carney said in a prepared statement Wednesday. "This budget will do just that."

State lawmakers will adjourn this year's session early next Wednesday but have yet to agree on two other key spending measures.

One is a $708 million capital budget for construction and transportation projects. The other is a $55 million package of grants for nonprofit groups, community organizations and volunteer fire companies.

Minority Republicans in the Senate refused to vote on the measures Tuesday, saying they and their constituents have not had enough time to consider them. The capital budget had been introduced only one day earlier, while the grants bill was introduced just hours before Tuesday's virtual Senate session.

The House and Senate have not met in person since late January, and Legislative Hall has been closed to the public since mid-March because of the coronavirus.

Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly but need Republican support for the capital budget and grants bill because they require three-fourths majorities.

The grants package is typically a non-controversial bill, but this year's measure includes language that establishes two task forces proposed by Democratic lawmakers in the wake of nationwide unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota.

One task force would be charged with studying law enforcement issues including use of force, community policing, transparency in investigating alleged police misconduct, and increasing diversity within police departments. The other would be charged with addressing "conditions that highlight the inequities within socioeconomically marginalized African American communities" in Delaware.

Meanwhile, Republicans are upset with a Democratic bill that authorizes voting by mail in all primary and general elections this year. Democrats cite the coronavirus as the reason for allowing anyone to vote by mail, with postage prepaid by the state, if they choose. The bill awaits action in the Senate after passing the House on a strict party line vote last week following the defeat of several GOP amendments. Senate Republicans added three of their own amendments to the bill late Wednesday.

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