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Carney proposes hiking Delaware budget by almost 4 percent

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(AP) – Democratic Gov. John Carney on Thursday proposed increasing Delaware’s operating budget by almost 4 percent next fiscal year, boosting spending to more than $4.4 billion dollars.

Carney’s budget proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1 includes another pay raise for state employees, on top of the raises they received this year, and $60 million targeted at low-income students and English language learners in public schools.

At the same time, Carney is proposing to add about $45 million to an existing $47 million cushion of unspent funds that could help stabilize the state budget if revenue projections fall.

Lawmakers agreed to informally set aside the $47 million last year after Democratic lawmakers rejected Carney’s call for a “budget smoothing” constitutional amendment that would have required use of an index of economic indicators to limit year-over-year spending growth.

Carney signed an executive order committing his administration to the tenets of the proposed amendment after fellow Democrats balked. He is hoping lawmakers will agree to set aside additional funds this year that could be used in lieu of tax increases or program cuts if the state’s fiscal situation takes a turn for the worse.

“We will strongly argue that this is the most responsible way to handle our budget,” Carney said before publicly unveiling his budget proposal.

The reserve funds would be in addition to 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.

Republican lawmakers, who criticized majority Democrats last year for opposing the constitutional amendment, welcomed Carney’s proposal to set aside additional funds in reserve.

“That’s a huge thing,” said House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford. “I think it’s a dramatic change on how we operate our fiscal world.”

Democratic Rep. Quinn Johnson, co-chair of the budget-writing committee, described Carney’s budget proposal as “fair.”

“The governor is holding true to his executive order,” said Johnson, D-Middletown, who supported Carney’s proposed constitutional amendment.

Meanwhile, Carney is proposing to spend an additional $34 million for state employee pay raises. Teachers would receive 2 percent salary hikes, while other state employees would get a $1,000 raise. Employees received similar raises this year.

In addition to the operating budget, Carney is proposing a capital budget of $678.6 million for transportation infrastructure, construction projects and technology. That’s down significantly from the $816 million that lawmakers approved for this year but in line with the $677.5 million capital budget that Carney proposed last January before lawmakers piled on more money.

Carney also proposed $48 million in grant funding for nonprofit organizations, community groups and volunteer fire companies, in line with the current year’s grants package.

Other highlights of Carney’s spending proposal include:

– $137.5 million for school construction and safety

– $20 million for open space and farmland preservation

– $19.5 million for school enrollment growth

– $15 million for Medicaid growth

– $15 million in new funding for an economic development fund aimed at colleges and universities

– $10 million for a new Transportation Infrastructure Investment Fund that could be quickly tapped for economic development projects.

– $3.2 million in new funding for early learning programs

– $2.9 million to add more child welfare caseworkers.

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