Monday, June 21, 2010

Rabbit Out of the Hat

Late Friday night (June 18th) the Joint Finance Committee completed budget mark up. The JFC did good work throughout the long day and night. The State of Delaware continues to stagger under the weight of the recession along with the rest of the country. Fortunately, revenue numbers for Personal Income Tax were a little better than expected this year, and Delaware's unique revenue source "Abandoned Property" (sometimes called 'escheat') was up a lot. Although, a rumored windfall for the June revenue forecast did not happen.

The Joint Finance Committee made good work of the money that was available. A few weeks ago they restored last year's salary cut and bailed out the deficit in the State Employee Health Plan. They funded step increases for eligible educators. Also the JFC funded the stipends for educators receiving NBC and Cluster, but continued the moratorium on new entries into those programs. Additionally, the JFC saved the School Resource Officer program that was on the chopping block. They also restored over-time pay to hours paid versus hours worked, an important issue for some shift workers in the state.

Of Friday, the JFC began the day by funding the state's share of full-day kindergarten for the Christina School District. Next, the JFC chose to restore almost all of the public school transportation funding. The Governor's budget had a recommended cut of $24 million to transportation, but the JFC brought back about $21 million of it. The restoration of this money should give some relief to local school district budgets and reduce the number of laid off educators around the state.

As the day turned into afternoon and then into evening, a great deal of difficult decision making was taking place around education and social service spending programs. The programs had to be placed as budget pass-through or Grant-in-Aid with much less money to be split among them. Late in the evening it was decided that most of the programs would receive another 10% cut to funding.

The JFC took a short break as we approached 11:00 PM on Friday night. When they reconvened, they were ready to address the issue of Short Term Disability. The DSEA and her coalition partners had lobbied the JFC hard all year on this issue. Short Term Disability insurance pays seriously ill employees 75% of salary during their time off. The STD has a waiting period before it begins paying. The original STD before last year's budget cuts had a 20 day elimination period. Employees have to use accumulated sick days until the STD picks up a portion of their pay. Last year this was changed to 60 days, making the program virtually useless especially to education employees who accumulate sick days slowly and who had to settle the elimination requirement within their contract year.

The Joint Finance Committee reduced the 60 day elimination period to 30 days as the final act of budget mark up. The JFC should be commended on their willingness to make this expenditure happen in spite of virtually no flexible money remaining in the budget. The JFC took the funding for in-school health clinics and placed them under the Tobacco Fund. This maneuver released $2.6 million that was used to fund the partial restoration of Short Term Disability.

This rabbit out of the hat trick will save many educator and state employee families from additional hardship during the wage earner's disability. Our thanks to the JFC magicians who thought this one up.

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