Two branches of state government closely tied to Delaware’s effort to create and maintain jobs – the Department of Education and the Delaware Economic Development Office – made their Fiscal Year 2013 budget presentations Tuesday during separate hearings before the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee. The JFC is nearly halfway through its process of reviewing spending requests outlined in Governor Markell’s proposal for the new fiscal year beginning July 1st.
Public education is one of the largest expenditures in the state, and the spending plan outlined by Secretary of Education Dr. Lillian Lowery totals more than $1.172-billion, an increase of 3.5-percent from the current fiscal year. Included in the spending package is what is called an Educational Sustainment Fund of $27.4-million. The biggest single proposed addition to the state budget is directly related to jobs, replacing lost federal funding under the economic stimulus program that targeted teaching and other school building positions.
“The $27.4-million is to make sure that we maintain the quality educators we have in the classroom so we can sustain the programs that we have for our children,” Lowery said.
Lowery said the spending plan also includes salary step-increases for teachers and eligible staff and a proposed $750 salary increase for paraprofessionals. The state is also testing students more frequently throughout the school year under a new assessment program, and is carrying out a number of initiatives through a four-year Race to the Top federal education reform grant. Delaware was awarded $119-million through the competitive process in late 2010, and has spent $27.7-million. Initiatives have included identifying ten Partnership Zone Schools and developing comprehensive plans for helping them improve performance, hiring of data coaches for teachers, and hiring of development coaches for principals and other school administrators.
Some of the questions and comments at the hearing centered on a desire for more flexibility in utilizing some of the funding made available at the local level. Lowery said schools and districts do get some flexibility in utilizing their share of the $27.4-million Sustainment Fund.
“We are always talking about that. We are in discussion about giving them more flexibility around the dollars” Lowery said. “That’s the kind of conversation we’ll continue to have with our legislators as we think about how to best do that.”
The Delaware Economic Development Office, meanwhile, presented a budget plan that is relatively the same as FY ’12, totaling about $2.68-million. Spending initiatives would support a variety of programs ranging from improving access to small business loans to supporting farmland irrigation (the Delaware Rural Irrigation Program, or DRIP), to working through the Council on Development Finance on identifying other worthy projects as they may come up.
“Our budget aims to accelerate economic opportunity and create jobs,” DEDO Director Alan Levin said.
Just in the past couple of years, DEDO has been instrumental in luring such large-scale projects as Bloom Energy’s fuel-cell facility to be built at the former Chrysler plant in Newark (now owned by the University of Delaware), Amazon’s decision to invest tens of millions of dollars into a new facility in Middletown, finding a new owner for the Delaware City refinery, and working with Capital One, M & T Bank, Discover and other institutions to preserve or expand jobs in the financial sector.
Although Fisker Automotive has laid off 26 workers at the former General Motors plant near Newport and delayed production of the hybrid Nina vehicle, Levin said “they’ve had some hiccups, if you will, but I think they’re going to get there.”
“Our focus now should be, yes, we care about the large employers and obviously want to continue to secure them. But, I think the entrepreneurial spirit is really where we’d like to go,” Levin added.
Delaware’s tourism initiative also falls under DEDO. Levin said the state is developing a comprehensive advertising and branding campaign with the goal of luring more out-of-state visitors to Delaware and boosting a sector that meant $2.1-billion to the state’s economy in 2010.
At about this time a year ago, members of the JFC were dealing with dire numbers and facing difficult decisions about a number of popular – and necessary – programs. A springtime surge in revenues allowed lawmakers to restore cuts, offer more grants-in-aid, and even reward state workers with a pay increase.
What about this year? More answers will come when the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council holds its first meeting of 2012 on March 19th.
“Even though we’re not totally out of the woods economically, and we’re certainly not flush with money, the Governor has been able to do a number of things people have been looking for, for quite a while,” JFC Chairman State Senator Harris McDowell (D-Wilmington North) said.
Representative J.J. Johnson (D-Jefferson Farms) said overall the JFC review has been a smoother process this year – at least so far. “It’s best to know what type of funding you have up front, rather than at the end,” Johnson added.