Looking Ahead: The Budget

 

By Rep. Melanie George Smith, Esq.
Co-Chair, Joint Finance Committee
State Representative, 5th District

 

Each year, the drafting of Delaware’s operating budget is the top priority for the General Assembly. It is a complicated, arduous project defined by competing interests and shifting priorities balanced against limited resources. Every budget cycle, a bipartisan group of 12 legislators meets for months to craft our budget. The Joint Finance Committee, which I have the privilege of co-chairing, works to provide essential state services, such as education, law enforcement, senior care and so much more.

This fall, the Joint Finance Committee chose to dig deeper into several of the most costly and complex areas of the budget. For the first time, JFC held two day-long budget meetings during the legislative recess. The sessions allowed the committee to have a forward-looking discussion, away from and in advance of the hectic environment of the regular budget calendar.

The Joint Finance Committee addressed four key parts of the budget during its recess sessions:

1. Education

This fiscal year, Delaware spent more than $1 billion in state tax dollars on our schools – a third of the entire budget. The Joint Finance Committee discussed the need to ascertain which programs are working and which ones are not, and to reallocate funding accordingly. Members also talked about the need to ensure that school programs serving special needs students have the funding they need.

2. Health Care

Delaware’s share of the state-federal health care plan for those in need, Medicaid, has grown rapidly in recent years. Significant steps already have been taken to bring down the cost of the program, but more needs to be done. The committee evaluated ideas for pushing more preventive care measures, intended to keep Medicaid patients healthy and away from costly treatments later in life. Also, JFC looked at ways to curb abuse of the Medicaid system and root out fraud.

3. Public Paratransit

The cost of providing reliable public transportation for Delaware’s elderly and disability communities is well above national averages. The committee heard about plans in the works at DelDOT to overhaul the state’s transit system, including proposals to raise decades-old rates and fees. The committee also discussed the need to improve the quality of paratransit service.

4. Grants-in-Aid

The state’s annual Grant-in-Aid bill is an integral part of the budget package, providing funds to hundreds of nonprofit agencies, Delaware’s volunteer fire departments, senior centers and veterans’ groups. Demand for state grant funds is always growing, and the Joint Finance Committee is committed to ensuring those groups that receive grant money are held accountable and can show how their programs make a difference in their communities. We want to ensure that the funds we appropriate are well-spent. The committee agreed to explore modifying its application process, focusing more on outcomes and modeling it after the United Way and other major grant-giving organizations.

The Joint Finance Committee will formally begin its fiscal 2015 budget review process in February, with Governor Markell unveiling his proposed budget in January. We look forward to keeping the public informed of our work throughout the process.