Democratic Gov. John Carney has signed a $4.45 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that starts next Monday, a 4.2% increase in spending over the current year's budget.

Carney signed off on the budget bill after it passed the Senate on a 20-to-1 vote Tuesday, following unanimous passage in the House last week.

Carney also signed a separate supplemental appropriations bill earmarking $62 million in one-time spending for various programs and projects. That total includes $37.5 million in additional funding for low-income students and students from non-English speaking homes.

"The most important thing that we are doing in this budget is investing in our children and in education," Carney said.

The spending plan includes pay raises of $1,000 for most state employees and 2% for teachers, at a cost of about $34 million. That's on top of the pay raises that government workers received this year.

Lawmakers added tens of millions of dollars to the spending plan that Carney proposed in January as state revenue projections have continued to grow. Since last June, revenue estimates have climbed by about $217 million for this year and by roughly $100 million for next year.

One of the biggest changes made by the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee was adding $15 million to the $60 million targeted by Carney over three years, starting next year, for low-income students and English language learners in public schools. Half of the "Opportunity Fund" money will be built into the operating budget, with the other half coming from one-time appropriations. All of the $15 million added by the committee is earmarked for mental health services for students in 49 "high need" elementary schools that qualify for reading interventionists under a separate block grant program.

Despite the additional funding, lawmakers also heeded Carney's call for fiscal restraint. Carney proposed adding about $45 million to an existing $47 million cushion of unspent funds that could help stabilize the state budget if revenue projections fall. The goal of administration officials is to set aside $125 million in the reserve account. That's on top of the state's constitutionally mandated "rainy day" fund, which totals about $250 million and is intended to be used only to address unanticipated budget deficits. It has never been tapped.

Carney said that when the economy softens and revenues go down, lawmakers can draw on the reserve account instead of cutting spending or raising taxes.

Sen. Colin Bonini, who frequently complains that the state spends too much taxpayer money, held to his annual ritual of voting against the budget bill. At the same time, he praised colleagues for showing some fiscal restraint, given the revenue increases seen over the past year.

"I'm tremendously thankful for your efforts," said Bonini, R-Dover.

Lawmakers are still reviewing Carney's proposed capital budget of $678.6 million for construction and transportation projects and a proposed grants package of $48 million for nonprofit organizations, community groups and volunteer fire companies.

(1) comment

Isaiah T

A 4.2% increase in spending. Why do I never read a single word about any budget cuts? Pay raises on top of pay raises. A virtual unanimous vote too. My fixed income doesn't go up 4.2%. But hey, the economy's good right now so let's spend, spend, spend. Ain't responsible government wonderful?

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