Friday, June 17, 2011

Budget, Bond, and Grant In Aid

The Joint Finance Committee finished all their work yesterday by completing the Grant In Aid process. Last week they completed budget markup and the published budget bill (HB 190) was distributed on the floor of the House on Tuesday of this week.

None of it becomes reality until both chambers pass the budget and the grant in aid bills. Additionally, some economic decisions regarding construction projects, job creation initiatives, and tax breaks will be taken up by the Bond Committee on Monday, June 20th.

The Bond Committee will be more tight fisted with projects than they might have been after this week's economic forecast. The Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council (DEFAC) which estimates state revenues reported an additional $18 million for the fiscal year, but this is after a month of rumors that it might be as big as $40 million. Moreover, their projections show revenue will drop around $38 million in fiscal year 2012.

On a bright note, one of the additions that the Joint Finance Committee was able to do before finishing markup, was make a small investment toward improving paraprofessional pay. In addition to step increase, paraprofessionals will receive an additional $875 on scale. This is a much better deal for paraprofessionals that the original 2% increase.

Finally, in the closing days of the session a charter school regulation bill will be put forward by the Markell Administration to deal with recent problems that have arisen with a few of those schools. DSEA will be involved in trying to influence the legislation.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Joint Finance Committee Labors On

The Joint Finance Committee met again today continuing to work on budget markup. The two big items of discussion today were expenditures under the Tobacco Fund and Medicaid expenditures. The Tobacco Fund refers to money that the tobacco industry has to give states as part of a federal settlement from about a decade ago. In Delaware we have been true to using this money for health care programs. In recent years with declining General Fund revenues, we have been relying more heavily on the Tobacco Fund and drawing down the reserve. Some members of JFC expressed concern about this trend and the dependency of various health programs on the fund.

However, the discussion of Medicaid was much more involved. The Governor's budget proposed $5 million in reductions for Medicaid. A lot of attention focused on use of the emergency room for non-emergency care by the Medicaid population.

From the perspective of an observer, it seemed like there needed to be more information provided to the JFC. (Perhaps it was provided and simply not available to the public) There is no, one, homogeneous Medicaid population. A person who uses Medicaid could be a child, a paraplegic adult, a single mom, an able bodied adult who goes to work everyday in a low-wage job without health benefits, or a senior citizen who is too poor to pay for the gap in coverage from Medicare. So to say that the Medicaid population is over-using the emergency room tells one, next to nothing about what is really going on and why.

To use an example from our sample group above; the working poor often have inflexible employers who do not have "sick days" for their employees. Thus, going to a doctor's office from 9:00AM to 5:00PM is not an option; leaving the emergency room for care. (Although Acute Care clinics are beginning to fill that niche in many areas).

In any case, except for a very few disturbed individuals, people who use Medicaid are just like you and me. They are not going to sit around in an emergency room all night long just to make the state spend more money. There must be something driving the behavior for a specific demographic.

It is this kind of need for more information and thoughtful decision making that prompted the JFC to take the following two actions. First, they restored all $5 million in proposed cuts to Medicaid. Second, they have ordered a task force to study cost savings and innovation in health care and Medicaid.

A major item of interest for educators remains unresolved in the 2012 Budget, the paraprofessional pay plan. This blog has written previously about the promise made by the General Assembly four years ago to raise paraprofessional pay in three phases. The modest goal is to get the starting salary to the federal poverty level for a family of four (currently $22,350 per year). The General Assembly funded Phase I in 2008, but has not funded another phase since the bad budget years.

Given Delaware's unexpected revenues over the last few months, the Delaware State Education Association would like the State to take the opportunity to move paraprofessionals closer to a living wage.

The JFC continues to toil over the budget. They will meet again Wednesday morning.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

JFC Still Working Hard

Ohhhh, I hope blogging is like riding a bicycle, you never forget how, no longer how long it's been.

Life has been busy in education politics. The Joint Finance Committee did two weeks of Budget Mark Up work, did not get finished, did some more this week, and hopefully will finish in a marathon session on Monday.

Educators have held their own, getting a few improvements such as a 2% raise beginning in January, 2012 (as opposed to July, 2012 the actual start of the 2012 fiscal year), and the infamous extra pay period.

Unfortunately, the moratorium on National Board Certification stipends, or Skills and Knowledge cluster stipends will continue yet another year. Without compensating educators for the hard work and time involved, these self-improvement endeavours will become a thing of the past.

There is still one funding issue to be decided that is important to educators, paraprofessional Phase II funding. Four years ago, the General Assembly studied educator pay and found paraprofessional pay particularly egregious. The General Assembly set a modest goal of moving the starting salary of a paraprofessional up to the federal poverty level for a family of four. This was to be done in three phases. In 2008 Phase I was implemented. We have done nothing since then because of the fiscal crisis.

Now, we have some unexpected revenue, so DSEA is pushing hard for Phase II of the paraprofessional pay plan. Remember, this is a modest goal to begin with because federal poverty level for a family of four is only $22,350 a year. Phase II will not yet get them there, but it will help.

The next item of interest falls under the DSEA commitment to "Protect and Nurture Children". This DSEA legislative plank reads as follows:

Every educator knows the heartbreak and frustration of children who are too hungry, sick, or traumatized to learn well. The opportunity to learn cannot be divorced from socio-economic realities, and those realities are becoming more challenging. In 2010, more than 26% of all US children live in poverty. DSEA will be supportive of legislation, policy, and initiatives which promote the welfare of children and the economic stability of their families.

With this in mind we should be proud of our Attorney General Beau Biden. Mr. Biden is standing up to the insurance industry, by making Blue Cross Blue Shield put money into a health foundation if they merge with a for-profit insurance company. This will mean millions of dollars for indigent care in the state, and that means healthier kids and families in Delaware.