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JFC chops $33 million from budget, plenty to go

Delaware Public Media

The Delaware Board of Education won’t return to class next fall – just one casualty as state lawmakers cut or eliminated dozens of programs across government as they craft their proposed budget.

The cuts made by the Joint Finance Committee Tuesday ranged from public health programs, the arts, to services for foster children.

“I think today is a preview of the types of reductions that will have to continue if there isn’t revenue,” said Mike Jackson, the state budget director.

Jackson specifically noted a 20 percent cut to the Infant Mortality Task Force that was established in 2005 to curb Delaware’s high death rate among young children.

“That has impact on families that are most in need,” he said.

Public education took the brunt of hit, making up nearly half of the $33 million in cuts.

JFC co-chair Sen. Harris McDowell (D-Wilmington North) was visibly frustrated during the hearing – a rarity for the typically congenial General Assembly.

McDowell and other Democrats frequently voted against making such cuts, but the group could never find enough support to stem the bleeding.

The reason, he says, is the reductions are premature.

He doesn’t want to make these cuts before the rest of the General Assembly finalizes a currently nebulous tax plan being forged by leaders of all four caucuses that has yet to be introduced.

“We need to hold some of our colleagues’ feet to the fire. I mean, we can’t tell them what they have to do, but we can tell them to make up their mind and do it one way or the other,” McDowell said.

But his co-chair, Rep. Melanie George Smith (D-Bear) wants to avoid another late-night fix – something that’s led to budget bills being signed as light from the dawn of July creeps in the governor’s windows during the past two years.

While McDowell called for the committee to follow Gov. John Carney’s playbook of half budget cuts and half tax hikes, Sen. Dave Lawson (R-Marydel) reminded JFC that Carney doesn’t control Delaware’s purse strings.

“Our job isn’t to placate the governor. Our job is to placate the taxpayers,” Lawson said.

Some veteran committee members frequently questioned what a particular program or line item does or whether positions would be eliminated during the three-hour hearing. 

Some of the cuts – particularly the elimination of the state Board of Education – will need to be outlined in separate bills and passed by the entire General Assembly, according to Jackson.

JFC still has about $200 million left to find – whether from further cuts or from new tax revenue – to write a balanced budget.

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